News & Politics

Medical Marijuana Supporters Want More Illnesses Approved for Treatment

DC’s recently inaugurated medical marijuana program has very few patients, and advocates say it should be expanded to serve people with epilepsy, migraines, and other disorders.

Blue Dream, one of the strains available at Capital City Care, a medical marijuana clinic in DC. Photograph courtesy of Capital City Care.
Marijuana policy advocates told a DC Council hearing today that the District’s medical marijuana program should be expanded to include epilepsy, post-traumatic stress and other diseases, saying the current list of qualified ailments keeps away too many people who could otherwise benefit.
Currently, a person must suffer from cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, or a condition that causes muscle spasms (such as multiple sclerosis), in order to have their doctor recommend cannabis. But the list could be much longer, several witnesses testified.
Since the city’s first three clinics opened in late July, 15 years after city residents approved pot as a legal remedy for some chronic illnesses, only 59 patients are enrolled, according to the DC Department of Health.
Epilepsy is a qualified condition in 17 states where medical marijuana is legal, Ken Archer, a DC political activist, told Council member Yvette Alexander, who oversees the Department of Health and ran today’s hearing. Archer said he may need to move his family to California so that his four-year-old daughter, who suffers from epileptic seizures, could one day benefit from medicinal pot.
Very few doctors who practice in the city are authorized to prescribe weed. Najma Roberts, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said that since the program launched, only 62 physicians of the approximately 1,400 accredited by the city have picked up the recommendation forms. And of those, only 39 have actually filled them out. Edward Shanbacker, the executive vice president of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, is not surprised by those figures, though.
“I’m not sure there were any projections about what the uptake would be,” he tells Washingtonian. “The use of medical marijuana in the medical community has not gained widespread acceptance.
Even patients whose doctors prescribe marijuana face complications. Alexander also heard from Kristin Farthing, who suffers from endometriosis, a disease of the uterus that can cause severe abdominal and back pain and infertility. Farthing’s illness is not on DC’s list of approved conditions, but even if it were, she has other barriers to accessing medical marijuana. Under DC’s medical marijuana law only doctors licensed to practice in the city can recommended the treatment; Farthing’s physician is in Maryland, and while she pointed out she can pick up medication prescribed that doctor at any District pharmacy, she could not do the same with pot. DC also requires doctors to have “existing relationships” with patients before recommending medical marijuana.
But Farthing’s testimony still came back to the fact that even if the doctor who treats her endometriosis was in the District, she is still ineligible for a treatment that could reduce a considerable amount of her suffering. “Can you please approve my condition?” she said.
Other witnesses at Alexander’s hearing asked her to add migraines, cluster headaches, and dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes abnormal postures and twitching. Adam Eidinger, a longtime pro-pot activist who is also pushing a ballot referendum that would legalize all marijuana use, suggested the District’s medical marijuana policy should include a list of illnesses that are not appropriate for the treatment instead of a short list of approved diseases.
The number of qualifying illnesses could grow eventually, Roberts says. The Department of Health plans to convene an advisory board of doctors in early 2014 to determine whether the list of approved conditions should be expanded, though Roberts did not say how quickly it would act. 

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.