Medical marijuana patients face delays as demand grows in Georgia

Georgia adds call center and THC card pickup locations
Holly Chapman is the general manager of the Trulieve Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Marietta, one of four dispensaries licensed in Georgia to sell low THC cannabis oil to patients and caregivers who have registered with the state and hold a low THC oil card. The state currently has a backlog of more than 500 cards that have not been delivered, and some caregivers and patients have reported waiting months to receive them. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Holly Chapman is the general manager of the Trulieve Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Marietta, one of four dispensaries licensed in Georgia to sell low THC cannabis oil to patients and caregivers who have registered with the state and hold a low THC oil card. The state currently has a backlog of more than 500 cards that have not been delivered, and some caregivers and patients have reported waiting months to receive them. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Demand for medical marijuana is on the rise in Georgia now that dispensaries are finally open, but some patients say they’re still unable to buy the product because of government delays.

Patients dealing with severe seizures and other illnesses have waited months in several cases to receive physician-approved ID cards that they need to legally purchase the medicine.

To help clear the backlog, the Georgia Department of Public Health recently added a call center, expanded the number of locations where patients can pick up their ID cards and started shipping the cards for overnight delivery to county public health offices where they are distributed to patients and caregivers.

Since Georgia’s first dispensaries opened in April, the number of registered patients and caregivers has increased by about 6,000 to a total of nearly 52,000, according to state figures. That number could grow substantially in the coming years.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Leslie Johns, who gives medical marijuana to her 21-year-old son Darrell to treat his epilepsy, said she’s still waiting for the ID card that she renewed for $25 in April. He used to have seizures daily, but since he started taking cannabis oil, he only has a seizure once every two or three months.

“It’s hard because I’m supposed to have a card for him and I’m his caregiver,” said Johns, who bought two bottles at a Macon dispensary just before her card expired. “He’s doing really well, but this is so stressful.”

Georgia health officials say they’re taking steps to ease barriers facing medical marijuana patients.

The call center has helped, and the number of weekly calls has decreased to about 200 from a peak of 1,000, said Dr. Chris Rustin, interim director of health protection in the Department of Public Health. As of Friday, there were 558 pending applications for low THC oil cards, many of which were awaiting patient verification of their IDs and addresses.

In addition, the government has increased the number of county health department offices where patients can pick up their cards, from 18 to 42 sites.

“We had to make it much more convenient for the public to have access to pick up these cards,” Rustin said. “These improvements will certainly help us improve the process and issue these cards quicker for the public that needs it.”

Dispensaries opened for business in four Georgia cities this spring, eight years after a state law first allowed patients to consume cannabis oil but didn’t previously allow a way to purchase it. Additional dispensaries are planned in the coming months beyond existing locations in Macon, Marietta, Newnan and Pooler.

Cannabis oil can have no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high. It’s only available with a physician’s approval to treat several illnesses including seizures, terminal cancers, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trulieve, one of two medical marijuana companies licensed in the state, is urging Georgia’s government to work urgently to accommodate patients in need.

“We have heard from many patients, some of whom are very sick, that the process of getting a medical card is long and cumbersome,” Trulieve spokesman Steve Vancore said. “Not only have they had delays, but the fact that they must also drive to a location, given the severity of qualifying conditions, makes it even more difficult.”

He said the Department of Public Health recognized the problems and is making improvements.

But caregivers such as Kim Skriba of Auburn are frustrated by the wait for a card. She received hers Monday after applying for it in April. She said the government initially canceled her card because a representative couldn’t reach her by phone.

In the meantime, she stretched her supply of cannabis oil, and her 24-year-old son Ryan suffered from more seizures than usual.

“I’ve been trying to skimp on it so that it would last. We’ve had a little bit of an increase in seizures, so that’s awful,” Skriba said. “Life with a special needs child or adult is not easy. When the state makes things harder for you, it just adds difficulty and stress to the whole situation.”

Skriba said the Department of Public Health should mail low THC oil cards to patients instead of requiring them to visit an office, but Rustin said the state needs to protect patients’ medical information and ensure that cards are only given to authorized individuals.

The department currently issues cards within four or five days if all information is provided and verified, Rustin said. At the height of this summer’s surge in applications, it took twice as long to process cards.

Patients and caregivers can check the status of their applications for low THC oil cards online through the Department of Public Health’s website.

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