It’s been six years since the N.H. Legislature passed a law allowing some patients with chronic or debilitating illnesses access to medical marijuana. It’s been a decidedly rocky road thus far.
Unfortunately, even once that contentious issue was decided, it took the state so long to actually follow through with writing the regulations, and siting and licensing regional dispensaries, that Linda Horan of Alstead, dying of stage 4 lung cancer, had to sue to get permission to obtain the drug in Maine. Even more shamefully, the state, which lost the case, returned to court after Horan died in early 2016, seeking to have the ruling vacated. That would have left the roughly 300 other patients who had followed Horan in getting cannabis ID cards without access, since New Hampshire’s four licensed dispensaries were still not operating at that point.
Fast forward to fall 2019.
The good news is that patients with ID cards have more access than ever. A law passed in 2018 allowed two more dispensaries to be licensed — one of them should be opening next month in Keene — to lessen the travel time and wait. It turns out that driving an hour or more every 10 days is hard for someone suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, lupus, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries — the types of conditions that qualify for a card.
Good news also came when Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of a bill to ease the restrictions on obtaining the drug for those who need it was overridden. Senate Bill 88 lessens the time a patient must wait to receive an ID card. The 90-day waiting period was a strange and prohibitive edict that completely missed the point of providing needed relief, especially to those patients with progressive ailments, such as cancer.
More ambiguously, the governor also vetoed legislation that would have allowed patients to grow their own drug legally. The House last week overrode that veto, but the Senate upheld it. The bill would have potentially been a big step in making sure patients get access to therapeutic cannabis sooner — more on that later. But as Sununu pointed out in issuing his veto, it would have been difficult to regulate and enforce, particularly in a state historically poor at putting resources into such efforts.
And that brings us to the worst news regarding the program — itself a good news/bad news issue. The Therapeutic Cannabis Program recently received a failing grade in a legislative performance audit for 2018. Auditors determined the program takes, on average, 18 days to act on an application once it’s filed. That was the good news, since it’s far better than the 31 days it took in 2016 and the 29-day gap in 2017.
But state law mandates the cards be issued (or not) within 15 days. At least, it did until SB 88 was overridden, changing that to 20 days.
The problem, so very New Hampshire advantage-ish, is that back in 2013, when the law was passed and the program was started, it was severely underfunded.
“Although the program was authorized by the Legislature, it did not initially provide a budget during the development phase, which contributed to the program’s inconsistent operations, ineffective client service, inadequate database and immature management control environment over card issuance,” the audit stated.
As of a year ago, the program had one full-time employee, plus a part-time employee and a program administrator.
“There was no money allotted for staffing or a [new] database. It was an unfunded program that we had to build from scratch,” said Michael Holt, the administrator.
By design, in fact, it relies on fees from the dispensaries and the licenses to fund the program. So it’s just now getting up to speed as more patients are finally getting the service that was approved six years ago.
According to the audit, there were 6,480 patients in the program last year; now there are five staffers and a database is being built.
That the state is getting closer to adhering to its own goals for wading through applications is good. Credit goes to those running the program on a shoestring for this long. But it’s a shame those who qualified during the past three years suffered needlessly because a stingy, short-sighted Legislature refused to fund it to begin with.
The New Hampshire advantage.