Georgia’s two licensed medical marijuana companies relied on the state government’s reporting of patient enrollment when making decisions on tens of millions of dollars worth of investments. Seven dispensaries have opened since April in or near the cities of Augusta, Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Savannah.
“DPH identified a number of anomalies within the registry data including patients with duplicate cards, patients who were counted as caregivers, expired cards that had not been renewed but remained in the system, and some patients who were deceased,” Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@
DPH Commissioner Kathleen Toomey ordered epidemiologists to audit the registry, Nydam said.
An initial review quickly revealed that the Low THC Oil Registry wasn’t regularly updated because it depended on medical providers to remove patients after they stopped seeking care or died. Many providers stopped reporting patient information after 2019 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state’s system didn’t automatically remove patients who were no longer active.
The DPH has always complied with a state rule that requires regular reports from medical providers, Nydam said.
Georgians are eligible for medical marijuana cards with approval from a physician to treat several severe illnesses, including seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. The oil can have no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives users a high.
The cards cost $25 and are valid for two years before they need to be renewed.
The CEO of one of Georgia’s medical marijuana companies, Botanical Sciences, said the state’s inaccurate count harmed the state’s young industry, which now needs to adjust to lower-than-expected demand.
“It is disappointing to find out that the information the state has provided is inaccurate,” Botanical Sciences CEO Gary Long said. “Our focus should be on how we move past this in a cohesive way that increases awareness of this industry in our state and the availability of these therapeutic products for patients in need.”
Georgia’s other medical marijuana company, Trulieve, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Instead of 30,600 active patients previously reported by the DPH in July, there are just 13,000, according to the department. The number of active caregivers — who are authorized to purchase low THC oil for registered patients — is 1,200, about 6% of the 21,000 previously reported.
Out of the 17,600 patients whose cards are canceled or expired, the department has identified about 3,400 who have died.
The DPH has made data mistakes before.
In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial disparities in disease and death emerged as an issue nationwide. The DPH had a hard time finding such data, however, blaming the gaps on mistakes by pharmacies and others.
In fact, the DPH’s own drive-up testing sites weren’t recording race data and only fixed the problem after being shown proof by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The DPH also compiled an incomplete list of children who died from COVID-19 and corrected it when presented with additional data by the AJC, saying its staffers at the time were overwhelmed with new cases.
While there are many fewer Georgia medical marijuana patients than expected, their numbers are growing since dispensaries opened, according to the department. More detailed figures will be available when the department’s audit is completed in the coming weeks.
During hearings at the Georgia Capitol earlier this year, companies estimated that the number of patients could increase to hundreds of thousands in the coming years.
“The demand is certainly there for patients in need,” said Andrew Turnage, executive director for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission. “We know there are a significant number of patients in Georgia with the appropriate and applicable diagnosis, but the registry growth is happening slower than anticipated.”
The DPH has instituted several changes to ensure accurate data in the future, Nydam said.
Deceased patients and those with expired cards will be removed from the Low THC Oil Registry without having to rely on information submitted by medical providers.
In addition, the department will analyze registry data and match it with vital records twice a year to remove patients who have died. Physicians will also receive education on how to report the status of their patients.
Patients and caregivers can check the status of their applications for low THC oil cards online through the DPH’s website.
Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.