Excitement surrounding the pending start of Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program could quickly fizzle out if patients can't find doctors willing to recommend cannabis.
That's why the state Department of Health is placing an emphasis on physician participation in crafting its regulations.
The department organized a physician work group to seek input and gauge how strong participation will be as it finalizes those regulations, according to spokeswoman April Hutcheson.
The department finalized its temporary regulations Friday for physician and practitioner participation as the state prepares to begin issuing dispensary and grower/processor permits by the end of the month.
The program is expected to be fully implemented by early 2018.
Per the regulations, medical professionals who want the option to recommend medical marijuana for their patients must complete a four-hour training course and register with the department.
Hutcheson said the department is accepting applications for organizations hoping to provide that training, and the cost to physicians will be dependent on those providers.
The department also will maintain a publicly available registry on its website that lists the practitioners approved to participate in the program.
Chris Goldstein, a leading Philadelphia-based advocate for cannabis consumers and patients, said the registry and training requirement could limit physician participation, which will ultimately impact patient participation.
The registry exists for medical marijuana programs in New York and New Jersey, both states with low participation rates, Goldstein said.
Other states, including Michigan, which do not require doctors to register before recommending medical marijuana have many more patients visiting dispensaries, he added.
Though these regulations are temporary, Goldstein said the registry and training requirement will stay because they are written into the state law.
The success of the program could rely on large medical companies buying in and requiring their physicians to register, but Goldstein said he hasn't seen that happen in other states with similar requirements.
Dan Carrigan, a spokesman for WellSpan, the largest healthcare provider in York County, said the nonprofit is monitoring the program's developments through a special multi-disciplinary team "to determine how WellSpan will best align with laws and regulations through evidence-based decision making to determine the best course of action for patients."
WellSpan's multi-disciplinary team includes physicians, Carrigan said.
Cara Salemme, who helped fight for legislation to establish the program in Pennsylvania, said patients committed to pursuing this alternative treatment are going to be pushing their doctors to educate themselves and register or seek treatment elsewhere.
Salemme, of North Codorus Township, has a son who suffers from epilepsy, one of 17 medical conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana, according to the state's law.
"I am truly hopeful that the established medical professionals already living, working and actively engaging in our communities will realize that all a recommendation means is that they feel their patient 'could benefit' from medical marijuana," Salemme said. "The medical professionals that work for the various dispensaries will be the ones to provide dosing instructions and suggest strains and ratios."