Washington's first official state-sanctioned medical marijuana authorization form isn't sitting well with many medical marijuana patients. At issue is the inclusion of a section requiring patients to list their qualifying condition, something almost universally absent from the ad hoc forms used previously in the unregulated medical marijuana system.
Kristi Weeks, the Department of Health's legal services director, believes that the state could put the data collected on the form to good use, juxtaposing it with data on opioid painkiller use to spot trends, among other worthwhile projects. Patients don't see it that way.
"There's no way in the world I'm walking into one of these recreational stores and showing it," said Amy Casca, a medical marijuana patient who treats her PTSD with pot. She said that since the form was adopted last July, she's had awkward interactions with budtenders, who have asked her overly personal questions about her diagnosis.
"She didn't mean bad," said Casca of one curious budtender, "but there it is. It's just insane that the state would be doing this."
Other patients have had similar experiences. Stephen Damgaard, a medical marijuana patient who has been HIV positive for 28 years, said the standardized form has led to similarly awkward experiences.
"With some people, because of their obvious ignorance on the issue, it's absolutely uncomfortable," he said. "You don't necessarily want to have to be the educator for them. And in many cases, you're astounded by the person's ignorance on the issue. I have had people see that I'm HIV-positive and go put gloves on."
He described one experience to me that was particularly troubling. Last summer, he was visiting Lake Chelan and went to a new dispensary with his authorization form. "The girl turned around and hollered across the room asking what the best stuff for HIV was," he said incredulously. "I'd asked for pain. I didn't run screaming and hide under a rock or anything, but it just... it makes you take a deep breath. You're still faced with that in this day and age. That wouldn't happen if that wasn't on the form that they're reading."
Weeks said that interactions like these are precisely why it was urgent that the unregulated medical marijuana system be brought under the watchful eye of the state. The new system, whereby medical marijuana patients will get their weed from recreational stores that carry a special medical-marijuana endorsement, comes online this July.
The new system requires these stores to have at least one budtender on staff at all times who is certified by the DOH as a "medical marijuana consultant." That consultant will receive at minimum two hours of education on ethics and patient privacy as part of their coursework.
Weeks also noted that patients will only be required to show their authorization form annually, when they first sign up for the state's patient registry and again upon renewal. Once on the registry, they will receive a "patient recognition card" that does not list their condition. The store is not allowed to keep a copy of the authorization form, she said, which many dispensaries used to do to cover their asses.
Any violation of patient privacy by the consultant or any of the other employees would mean, at minimum, a loss of certification by the consultant, according to Weeks. It could also constitute a class C felony and draw punitive action against the store from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.
"I'm not sure that people would ever feel really comfortable," she said, "but we have some strong safeguards in place."
She's right about folks not feeling comfortable: Safeguards aside, patients still ain't tryna hear it. At some level, they say, it's not about privacy measures but about principle.
"I have a problem walking into a 502 store and handing them a piece of paper that tells them what I have," said Kirk Ludden, another HIV-positive medical marijuana patient. "I have no issue sharing it with people I know and sharing my story. That's my choice to share or not to share. I should not be made to share it."
If patients are really squicked out by the form, said Weeks, they can always opt out, though their benefits as a patient will be severely limited.
"It's voluntary," she noted. Many patients have vowed to do just that, but Weeks said the DOH won't consider changing the form until there's actually an enrollment issue.
"If we put together a registry and nobody signs up for it, then yeah," she said, "we're going to have to look at the problem and what are some potential solutions."
Chris Bornstedt, another patient, said he still couldn't understand why medical marijuana users were required to list their condition when people prescribed OxyContin aren't.
"It shouldn't be any different than any other medication," he said, exasperated. "It just shouldn't."