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Medical marijuana doctors and patients have been able to virtually attend appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that could soon come to an end. Medical marijuana telemedicine is banned under state law and was temporarily allowed under an order issued by Governor Jared Polis – an order that state lawmakers rejected after the pandemic ended.
In May, members of the House of Representatives Finance Committee passed a bill that would have made MMJ’s telemedicine permanent. After the governor’s executive order finally ends, medical marijuana patients will have to leave the home. Polis has not said when it will stop renewing this particular order, but it is expected to expire before the fall.
While leaving the house to see a doctor may sound trivial to most of us, Dr. Peter Pryor that his home-bound, immunocompromised, and disabled patients have benefited from making appointments without going to his office. We met with Pryor, a medical marijuana practitioner since 2014, to learn more about the ins and outs of an MMJ virtual referral.
Westword: How many of your appointments have moved to a virtual platform since the implementing regulations were issued in March last year?
Dr. Peter Pryor: 100 percent, between 3,000 and 4,000 patients a year.
How are the telemedical visits carried out?
If possible, initial appointments are carried out via video conference. I speak to many patients who have landlines and who do not have access to video conferencing platforms. After the first visit, the patient has the option of a video conference. Most of my patients prefer a simple telephone consultation.
How have the appointments and consultations changed since the switch from personal to virtual?
The United States health system is leaving more and more people behind. Lack of insurance and suspicion of the medical community following the opioid epidemic and drugs that are non-working and addictive have led more people to medical marijuana. I find it surprising how little has changed through telemedicine compared to visits to the practice. Most of the patients I see have a chronic debilitating disease where the disease stays with you and doesn’t necessarily get better. A broken back by the age of 20 doesn’t usually improve over time in terms of pain. Surgery and other invasive treatments can relieve the pain for a while, but the pain returns and the procedures can be painful and expensive, even if you have insurance.
In Colorado, medical marijuana can only be recommended by health care providers for pain, HIV, cancer, seizures, glaucoma, nausea, muscle spasms, autism, or PTSD. Neither of these conditions requires visual cues. I see first-time patients by video, returning patients by phone or video. Today’s example: A person with PTSD from struggle and pain from trauma. What is the benefit of seeing this patient face to face over a video or phone call? I can’t imagine his pain or his mental pain. In my experience, personal versus telemedical consultations are equally beneficial.
Medical marijuana doctor Peter Pryor says all of his consultations were virtual during the pandemic.
Courtesy Peter Pryror
Since the pandemic and economic crisis, many more people have come to me to try medical marijuana, to try to get rid of or avoid prescribed drugs like percocet, oxycodone, gabapentin, methocarbamol, vicodin, benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, anxiety drugs, or antidepressants. Gabapentin or benzodiazepines could be the next opioid epidemic. Eliminating telemedicine for medical marijuana patients is an obstacle to treatment – an obstacle to health care.
Do you think there is still a need for telemedicine after the pandemic is over?
I find it surprising how we all congratulate each other on defeating COVID. I hope we will defeat COVID, but only because we hope something doesn’t make it come true. Most of my patients have told me how wonderful these appointments are, and I feel the same way. Immunocompromised patients make up more than 50 percent of my patient population. [As of April 26], Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 9,245 breakthrough cases of COVID, meaning the patient was fully vaccinated and was still getting the disease.
Mutations happen every day. How can we not learn from our experience that these offices are little petri dishes in which any patient who will get COVID in the future could be the source of a more contagious variant or who could skip the vaccine? My motto during this pandemic is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. We seem to plan the best and not even think about the worst. I’m afraid we are moving too fast to return to a normal that could be gone forever rather than creating a new normal.
More than one of our patients is paraplegic and when telemedicine goes away they will be forced to use public transport to make this appointment every year, which seems to be another barrier to treatment. Outside of the pandemic, many of our patients suffer from PTSD and are terrified of leaving their comfort zone. Cities and offices can be a barrier to treatment for many people who find even video conferencing too much.
Many patients do not have a car and are grateful that they do not have to deal with the cost and time of public transport. My patients are from all over Colorado. Many patients take more than four hours of driving to see me. What possible benefit is there in forcing someone to drive four hours each way to visit me for a twenty minute appointment? I believe that humans contribute to and cause global climate change. It just doesn’t make sense for my patients and my staff to get back in their cars when we’ve found a great alternative.
Were you surprised that lawmakers refused to make telemedicine permanent for medical marijuana?
Yes and no. Yes, because it seems so good for medical marijuana, and no, because it seems so good for medical marijuana. [Telemedicine is] good for patients, the environment and healthcare workers who don’t have to be on the front lines. I wasn’t surprised, because lawmakers and the people who still think of marijuana as the “devil’s salad” will continue to denigrate medical marijuana without evidence.
I haven’t heard any negative reports about telemedicine related to medical marijuana. Withdrawing telemedicine from us at this point is just another barrier to treatment. The three best things that have happened to medical marijuana since its inception have been moving the application process from paper to online, finding banking businesses that will allow us to use credit cards, and telemedicine. Taking this away and having the little blue pill prescribed by telemedicine at the same time is just another barrier to treatment.
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Thomas Mitchell has been a cannabis-related writer for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate, and general news for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman, and Fox Sports. He is currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.