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Medical Marijuana

GET THE DATA: Spotlight PA makes info on why patients qualify for medical marijuana publicly available

by Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA |

Pill bottles in a grid. One bottle has a marijuana leaf label on it.
Spotlight PA analyzed more than 1 million certifications to reveal the most common qualifying condition to get a Pennsylvania medical marijuana card.
Leise Hook / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — As part of an ongoing effort to increase transparency and accountability for the state’s medical marijuana program, Spotlight PA is making public data it obtained after an open records battle with the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The data — anonymized records of more than 1 million medical marijuana certifications in the state — was the basis of a Spotlight PA investigation earlier this year, and it shows the reasons why hundreds of thousands of patients qualify for a medical marijuana card.

Since Spotlight PA won access to the data last year, the state health department has shared anonymized certification records with academic researchers across the state. The agency also recently expanded the type of data it makes available to the broader public.

For Diana Briggs, the information reminds her of the help she says her 23-year-old son Ryan — who has suffered from seizures his entire life — and many others have received from the medical marijuana program.

“It was really emotional to look at these numbers,” Briggs, a Westmoreland County resident and patient advocate on the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, told Spotlight PA.

Spotlight PA is making the anonymized records of more than 1 million medical marijuana certifications available to download through the website GitHub.

The news organization first requested the certification records in June 2021 while reporting on the overdose death of a Bucks County man who was wrongfully denied addiction treatment funding because of his medical marijuana card.

Ultimately, both the state Office of Open Records and Commonwealth Court ordered the health department to release the records, which it did in September 2022. Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, represented the newsroom at no cost.

The records included anonymized data on each doctor-created certification over a six-year period. These records included the creation date, the certification’s status, the time period for the certification, the patient’s ZIP code, and the patient’s qualifying conditions. The data did not identify individual patients or doctors.

At one point, after Spotlight PA shared its initial findings with the agency, the health department sent revised information for one year, saying the original data inadvertently included duplicates. The department provided updated data for that year, and a spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the agency had reviewed the other data and “found no issues.”

In total, the health department spreadsheets provide details on more than 1.13 million certifications created from November 2017 through August 2022.

In January 2023, Spotlight PA published an investigation based on the data and interviews with more than 20 medical professionals, patients, researchers, and others interested in the program.

The investigation provided the first comprehensive look at how a decision by the administration of former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to add anxiety disorders as a qualifying condition transformed the state’s medical marijuana program, and, in the eyes of some, made it possible for basically anyone to get a medical marijuana card.

Officials with both the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, which advocates for members of the state’s marijuana industry, and the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, which objected to anxiety disorders as a qualifying condition, welcomed the data becoming public.

In February 2023, the health department shared certification data it had previously provided to Spotlight PA with academic researchers across the state, according to department spokesperson Mark O’Neill.

Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2016 approved legalizing medical marijuana. Patients currently need a doctor to certify at least annually that they qualify for the program. There are now 24 approved medical conditions. Anxiety disorders, severe chronic or intractable pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder are the most common reasons patients qualify, the certification data showed.

Nearly all of Pennsylvania’s neighbors have expanded access to marijuana to legalize the drug for all adults 21 and over. West Virginia is the only adjacent state that hasn’t.

In Harrisburg, during a state House hearing in November about legalizing recreational cannabis, state Rep. Tim Twardzik (R., Schuylkill) referred to the ease of obtaining a medical marijuana card.

“Pennsylvania started out with a limited list available,” Twardzik said. “But I’ve been told that it’s kind of — everybody’s anxiety. You can get a medical marijuana card by making the call. So it’s no longer pure medical reasons.”

Some members of the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board last year raised similar concerns, questioning how thorough some doctors are when they decide to issue certifications. Spotlight PA’s analysis found that in 2021, nearly 40% of certifications — or more than 151,000 — listed anxiety disorders as the sole qualifying condition, ranking it well ahead of others such as chronic pain and cancer.

O’Neill, the health department spokesperson, said that there are “very specific criteria” to obtain a medical marijuana certification, that doctors must meet professional standards when deciding whether patients qualify, and that the department is “committed to providing patients with access to medicine where medical doctors have determined that the patient will receive a benefit from the use of medical marijuana.”

Supporters of anxiety disorders as a qualifying condition have said it gives patients another treatment option at a time when more people are suffering from anxiety and that it has worked for many.

Briggs, the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board member, said she received a certification for anxiety herself after suffering from panic attacks and not finding relief from a prescription medication. She’s heard from others who have been helped, as well.

She thinks having access to the certification numbers can open up the eyes of people who are skeptical.

“With any new illness, any new medication, there is some fear that comes with that,” Briggs said. “To be able to look at these numbers — and to have accurate numbers, up-to-date numbers — and say … ‘This could help you. Look at how many patients are currently using this medication for this exact diagnosis.’ — I think is going to be incredible.”

The health department has made other info available publicly, as well. At the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board’s meeting in November, the department changed the key statistics it presented at its meetings.

The new format included info on the percentage of minors — 0.2% — who have one of the state’s more than 433,000 active patient certifications. Adults 18 to 65 accounted for 87.3% of those active certifications. The department says it added aggregate data for conditions, broken down by year, to a section of its website the same month.

“We continue to expand upon the office’s commitment to transparency and accessibility,” Laura Mentch, director of the state Office of Medical Marijuana, said at the November meeting.

Cathleen Palm — founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, which advocates for measures to protect kids — has followed the medical marijuana program and tracked what data is available. She would like to see the department increase the information it makes public by offering, for instance, a more detailed breakdown of the ages of patients and data on the qualifying conditions for minors.

“I think it’s a good step forward,” Palm said. “But it’s a distance from the kind of data and the breakdown in data that they really need to continue to inform the public policy conversation.”

O’Neill said the agency will continue to be transparent and will release more data as appropriate, while also protecting patient privacy.

Spotlight PA obtained the certification data after a 15-month legal battle. In separate open records cases, the health department recently provided Spotlight PA with data showing the number of certifications issued by individual doctors annually. A Commonwealth Court judge ordered the department to release that doctor data after the department and Spotlight PA participated in a court mediation program.

BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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