As Delaware gears up for adult-use cannabis, sales of which are set to kick off as soon as next year, the state could also dramatically expand its existing medical marijuana program.
A bill introduced in the legislature this week would remove the requirement that patients have one of a designated set of qualifying conditions, instead allowing doctors to recommend marijuana for any condition that they believe it could benefit. Additionally, patients 65 or older could self-certify their need for medical cannabis—without any need for a recommendation from a healthcare provider.
The bill, HB 285, was introduced Thursday by lead sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski (D) and three other sponsors. The measure also has also earned four additional co-sponsors, two in the House and two in the Senate. All are Democrats except co-sponsor Sen. Eric Buckson (R).
In addition to loosening restrictions for who could register for the state medical marijuana program, the proposal would also amend rules around expiration dates for registry cards. The measure, according to a legislative synopsis, would authorize regulators to issue cards with 2- or 3-year terms, instead of just the current one-year term.
Patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, meanwhile, could qualify for a card with an “indefinite” expiration date.
Another change the bill would usher in concerns reciprocity for out-of-state patients. As proposed, it would provide patients with medical marijuana cards from other jurisdictions with the same privileges as registered in-state patients.
Mark Jacobs, an advocate with the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network and an appointed member of the state’s Marijuana Act Oversight Committee, told Marijuana Moment on Friday that the bill’s proposed changes are important, but they also fail to address some of the biggest obstacles to patients, including product pricing and a lack of dispensary locations in some parts of the state. Less than a dozen facilities currently operate statewide.
One of the changes he’s most pleased to see in the legislation is the proposal to allow doctors to use discretion in when to recommend cannabis.
“One of the things I championed is dropping the qualifying conditions,” he said. “The state should not be in the business of diagnosis and treatment. That should be between the patient and their doctor. If my doctor says cannabis will help me for whatever reason the doctor determined, the state shouldn’t have any say in that whatsoever.”
Regarding new extended expirations for registry cards, Jacobs noted that the change makes sense given that nearly all of the qualifying conditions in Delaware are currently for chronic conditions that may not have a cure.
While Jacobs said his general practitioner renews his recommendation without charge, he pointed out that many states go to dedicated medical marijuana doctors.
“The going rate for the cannabis card factories here in Delaware is like $200,” he said, “just to print out the paperwork so you can send it in.”
The biggest problem facing patients, Jacobs argued, is high prices at the state’s multi-state operators (MSOs), which he said charge multiple times what cannabis is sold for in some other legal states.
“The main issue with medical marijuana dispensaries here is they’re price gouging,” he claimed, adding that he expects those prices to fall once adult-use sales begin in the state and dispensaries face more competition.
With licenses for adult-use businesses not set to go out until September of next year, Jacobs estimates it will be late 2024 or early 2025 before recreational sales begin.
The new bill’s lead sponsor, Osienski, also sponsored the pair of bills that led to Delaware’s legalization of adult-use marijuana.
In April, Gov. John Carney (D), who previously declined to comment on his intentions for the measures despite a longstanding opposition to legalization in general, allowed the bills to become law without his signature. He said at the time that while he feels that legalization is “not a step forward,” he would not stand in the way of the reform.
Even if Carney had decided to veto the bills, however, both of them—simple legalization legislation and a sales regulation measure—cleared both chambers of the legislature with more than enough support to override him.
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Earlier this year, after the passage of his two measures, Osienski gave advice to lawmakers in other states who are pushing for marijuana reform.
“The key was just to keep plugging away at it and see what the other states have done and see what works best for your state,” he said in May.
He also advised legislators to sit down with “affected state agencies” like the Departments of Health, Finance and Agriculture.
“We had to sit down through meeting after meeting to try to work out a lot of the issues,” he said.
It took several years to get the job done, however, as the governor vetoed his earlier legalization bill in 2022, which Osienski said “really killed our progress on that regulation and taxation bill” for that session.
He also said that there was “a lot of pressure from the existing compassion centers that dispense medical products,” as well as “pushback from the patients” who have been dissatisfied with the cannabis availability in dispensaries and “certainly did not want to see them dispensing their products for recreational users when they were still struggling for their medical needs.”
The lawmaker said at the time that he understood those concerns and would be “more than willing to run legislation that will be beneficial to patients and to compassion centers to help generate more products that we’re going to sell to the patients that are in need.”
The new bill, HB 285, doesn’t address product production, but it will nevertheless offer more patients access to the system.
Meanwhile, the Delaware Senate separately approved a resolution in March that urges the state’s congressional representatives to support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition.
Last year, Carney vetoed a more narrowly tailored bill that would have clarified that medical marijuana patients are not prohibited from buying, possessing or transferring firearms under state law.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
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