Fight for Patient Access to Medical Marijuana Rages On


Medical Marijuana Advocates Group helps patients access care through programs that lower the cost of seeing a physician.

Medical Marijuana Advocates Group helps patients access care through programs that lower the cost of seeing a physician.

Undoubtedly one of the most controversial topics across the heath care landscape is the use of medical marijuana to treat chronic illnesses.

Despite the numerous patients in desperate need of alternatives to narcotics, opiates, and other medications to manage their pain, many physicians will not give recommendations to patients, either disagreeing with the treatment route or fearing for the loss of their medical license.

Other times, patients are unaware of how to obtain a recommendation for medical marijuana or do not have the resources available to them to make their medical dreams a reality.

Patients in Washington, DC, however, are able to benefit from an organization called the Medical Marijuana Advocates Group (MMJAG). Established in January 2014, the MMJAG is responsible for 80% of those enrolled in a medical marijuana program in Washington, DC, according to the organization’s web site.

But the MMJAG does more than connect patients with a recommending physician. The group also helps patients gain access to the care through special programs focused on lowering the cost of seeing a physician, as well as waiving the cost of a medical marijuana card application.

A patient going through this program will only pay between $100 and $150 to complete the process of obtaining a medical marijuana card.

“That was one of the main barriers for patients when the program first started was the cost associated with seeing a physician and insurance is not accepted,” said Founder and CEO of MMJAG, Shawnta Hopkins-Greene. “It’s very important to me that people get safe, legal, and affordable access to medical cannabis treatment.”

Hopkins-Greene is the mother of a child with special needs and has other family members with similar disorders who have used medical cannabis as a means to treat their conditions.

“My advocacy is born out of being the mother of a special needs child. My son is on the Autism spectrum and he also has ADD. Many of the medications that have been prescribed for my son, the side effects are so horrible that it’s not even worth it to me to treat him with those medications,” Hopkins-Greene explained. “I have another relative who has treated his child who has severe ADHD with cannabis oil. I was really intrigued by the response and the improvement they saw in his behavior.”

But obtaining access to medical cannabis is not an easy feat, which is why organizations like MMJAG are necessary to assist patients in gaining access to the treatment they need. MMJAG works with specialized physicians to help both patients gain access to treatment and physicians gain a wider patient base.

“My network of physicians has been great,” said Hopkins-Greene. “They still see a large volume of patients. All of them believe very strongly in cannabis and alternative treatments, including cannabis, so the response was really, really great. Of course physicians spend a lot of time going to school and a lot of money on their education, so they’re willing to help out where they can, but they do not want to do so at the expense of their practices. But we’ve been able to make it very worthwhile for these physicians because we send them a large volume of patients.”

MMJAG serves as a kind of secretarial service to these physicians.

“What I do is get a hold of [the physicians’] availability and we fill their schedule with these patients,” Hopkins-Greene explained. “Then patients call them directly to get their referrals. It’s been great because our network of physicians, they take on these patients not just for giving them the medical marijuana treatment, but they become their primary care physicians, their pain management physicians, or their cardiologist. It’s really difficult for these patients once they’ve got their cards, a lot of them are being rejected by their other care providers because they don’t want to maintain them as patients.”

Many physicians make this decision based on the false belief that they will lose their medical license because they are prescribing medical cannabis. In actuality, physicians are only allowed to provide a recommendation for medical cannabis, something that is much different—and legal—rather than prescribing the medication.

Whether or not patients gain access to the medication is actually in the hands of the state, who has the option to deny the doctor’s recommendation. However, this only happens in rare instances when other documentation is missing or other requirements have not been met by the patient.

The doctor is never penalized for giving such a recommendation. Still, the stigma against medical marijuana recommendations and users persists, despite the facts that prove the contrary to be true.

“Education I believe is the key that is missing,” Hopkins-Greene said of the stigma associated with medical marijuana use. “The training needs to be much more extensive and we’re really trying to focus on that. We want [people] to understand that these are patients. We really need to change the face from a marijuana user to that of a marijuana patient. It’s very important that we make people understand that these are not just stoners. These truly are [patients] who find relief from their appetite problems, they’re now able to sleep, and they find relief from their pain with the use of medical cannabis.”

But there are plenty of medications available that achieve the same end that medical marijuana does, so why do patients insist on using medical cannabis over painkillers and appetite enhancers?

“Typically what I hear from patients is that the other treatment, the opiates for example, the side effects from those medications are so horrible,” Hopkins-Greene explained. “They prefer to treat their pain with medical cannabis. I have patients with mental illnesses who supplement their treatment with medical cannabis. They say that it helps to minimize the side effects of their other medication.”

Replacing other medications with medical cannabis is not the goal of MMJAG, however. MMJAG never encourages patients to stop taking their other medications, according to Hopkins-Greene.

As more groups like MMJAG emerge and more people are being educated about the benefits of medical cannabis, the stigma is being lifted little by little, which means good things for the medical marijuana industry.

“The cannabis industry is so new there really isn’t a lot of data out there to support anyone’s opinion. With that, I really do feel that within the next 10 years we will see it legal nationally, whether it’s just medical or whether that means recreationally as well,” Hopkins-Greene predicted.

Only time will tell where the medical cannabis industry is headed, but for now, patients can benefit from the assistance of groups like MMJAG, allowing their lives to be more tolerable, one recommendation at a time.

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