“We have heard from many patients, some of whom are very sick, that the process of getting a medical card is long and cumbersome.”
By Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
At 13, Darrell Johns of Macon weighed just 40 pounds and endured at least five seizures a week, said his mom and full-time caregiver Leslie Johns.
“I was having to crush 17 pills a day to run through his G tube, and he was still having seizures,” she said. “And the Diastat, which is Valium, that I would have to give him as a rescue, it would make him sleep for days because he was so tiny and it made him so groggy.”
Now 21, Darrell, who family members call Peanut, is doing much better, Johns said. He started taking medical cannabis in 2015 and went without a single seizure for more than a year.
Johns said Darrell, who was born with hydrocephalus and seizures, spoke his first word soon after starting the treatment.
“Him and my daughter were both in the living room. And I heard ‘Mama.’ And I said ‘What, Brianna?’ And I heard it again, ‘Mama.’ And I looked around the corner to say ‘What, Brianna?’ Well, Brianna was asleep. But I looked over at Peanut and he said, ‘Mama.’ And I just sat on the kitchen floor. And he got down. He cannot walk, but he scoots on his bottom. He scooted to the kitchen, and my husband came out because he heard what was going on. He said, ‘Peanut, who is that?’ He looked at him, he said, ‘Mama.’ It was history from there. I cried for days.”
Johns said Darrell now weighs in at 100 pounds, speaks about 10 to 15 words and only has a seizure every two or three months. Johns only has to feed Darrell two pills each day now, and the young man has more time to relax and do his favorite things, like going for rides on his dad’s sidecar or watching his favorite TV shows—“The Price is Right,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.”
But Johns and other caregivers say recent glitches have led to problems getting or renewing medical cannabis cards in Georgia.
After years of courtroom and legislative back-and-forth, the first legal dispensaries opened in Georgia this year. The state law allows products that contain a low amount of THC, the chemical that gets marijuana users high.
Patients must be diagnosed with one of a list of specific serious conditions and renew their licenses every two years. Johns said she filed to renew her card in April ahead of its June expiration, but despite calls to the Georgia Department of Public Health and the cooperation of Darrell’s doctor, she has yet to get the card.
Johns’s husband also has a card as one of Darrell’s caregivers, and she’s grateful that his renewal went through, so Darrell is not having to go without, but the situation has been inconvenient and stressful.
“It is frustrating because my husband works, so he would have to stop what he’s doing to go to the dispensary when I should be able to do it myself because I’m with Darrel 24/7,” she said. “So it just makes it inconvenient that Tim has to add that to his list of things that he does through the day when he shouldn’t have to.”
After the Georgia Recorder contacted the Department of Public Health for comment, Johns said she got a call telling her that her card would be shipped to Macon and be available Tuesday.
Steve Vancore, a spokesman for Trulieve, one of the medical cannabis companies operating in Georgia, said there are many such cases.
“We have heard from many patients, some of whom are very sick, that the process of getting a medical card is long and cumbersome,” he said. “Not only have they had delays, but the fact that they must also drive to a location, given the severity of qualifying conditions, makes it even more difficult. It is important to note that the staff at the Department of Public Health have been working hard to improve the system and we believe that they too recognize the challenges facing these patients.”
Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the department recently hired new workers to handle call volume—she said demand spiked to about 1,000 calls per week a few weeks ago but has since settled to about 200 per week.
There were 29,494 patients on the registry in late July, up from about 27,000 in April.
As of early August, there were 558 cards awaiting approval, Nydam said, some of which are new applications that haven’t been processed yet, but most involving problems with the application or documents.
“For example, if someone did not submit a copy of their driver’s license, we have to call them to get it,” she said. “Or maybe some information doesn’t match, i.e., one address on the driver’s license and another listed as place of residence. In those situations, we will try and call the individual, but if it takes several days of calls to reach someone, that creates a delay.”
The department has also begun daily shipments of cards to local health departments where patients can pick them up.
“Previously, they were shipping cards only once or twice a week, now it’s every day except Fridays—health departments need to be open to receive the package,” she said. “This cuts down on the time between when a card is printed and when it gets to the local health department for pick up. We have also added pick up locations—previously we had 18 counties around the state where cards could be picked up. We now have 42 locations.”
Vancore said he appreciates DPH’s efforts, but noted that other states have more streamlined processes.
“As you know, Trulieve serves patients in eight states, and those states have a variety of methods to allow patients to get their proper identification, from using the postal service to allowing patients to download their cards from a secure website,” he said. “We commend the DPH for allowing these patients to visit a Georgia physician via telehealth and believe this is a good thing, and we hope that type of remote accommodation can be made throughout the process, for example, allowing for an ‘opt in’ process allowing cards to be mailed directly to patients.”
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