Relaxed rules on the medical cannabis industry should mean volunteer caregiver Mandy Zick can deliver medicine to more patients.
From the start, Gov. Tom Wolf considered cannabis dispensaries and grower/processors as essential, life-sustaining businesses and allowed them to remain open amid increasing restrictions on business and stay-at-home orders to slow COVID-19’s spread.
That hasn’t been the case in many states where dispensaries are shut down.
On March 20, the state Health Department also loosened a number of rules. Chief among them, it temporarily removed the five-patient cap for individual, registered caregivers like Zick who pick up and deliver medicine to vulnerable patients whose health conditions keep them at home.
Other changes allow dispensaries to offer curbside pickup, as long as the whole transaction remains on licensed property. Most dispensaries in Northeast Pennsylvania started offering the service.
However, a technical delay has kept more patients from adding Zick as their caregiver.
When they try adding her using the online portal for registered patients, an error message pops up advising them that Zick has met her cap.
A spokeswoman for MJ Freeway, the company that manages Pennsylvania’s cannabis patient and caregiver registry, last week said work is underway to remove the cap.
As of Sunday afternoon, patients still could not add Zick.
“I want to be able to help them with this crisis,” she said. “I’m not doing this to get publicity. I’m doing this to help.”
The medical cannabis industry, still federally blacklisted and highly regulated in Pennsylvania, offers another example of the twisting and changing happening among industries to bring COVID-19 to heel.
But cannabis might be the best equipped to adapt, one company executive said.
“The cannabis sector, our industry, has always been incredibly nimble because we are working with regulators and have to make adjustments and shift operations so frequently,” said Blythe Heustis, vice president of retail operations at Jushi Holdings, the company that owns and operates Beyond/Hello dispensaries, including one in Scranton.
Last week, the Scranton dispensary on Moosic Street started curbside pickup in addition to other measures to limit human-to-human contact.
They’re limiting the number of patients inside the dispensary, and for the first hour of business each day, Beyond/Hello will only serve patients 50 and older.
Columbia Care, a dispensary in the Keyser Oak Center shopping plaza in Scranton, also rolled out curbside pickup, which in itself is a highly ordered process, said George DeNardo, Columbia Care’s vice president of operations for the mid-Atlantic.
Patients place their orders ahead of time.
A dispensary employee, wearing protective glasses, a mask and gloves, meets them at the curb, validates their medical marijuana ID card and takes payment. Once everything is in place, they bring out the cannabis.
For patients in self-quarantine with no way to schedule a pickup, he suggested calling the dispensary.
“We’ve always worked with patients on connecting them with caregivers,” he said.
Mandy Zick registered as a caregiver in the early days of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program. She and her husband, Jeff Zick, are longtime activists for cannabis reform and founded the Pennsylvania Cannabis Festival formerly held in Nay Aug Park.
Mandy Zick doesn’t get paid to deliver medicine to patients across up to five counties. Because cannabis remains an all-cash business, she has to manage payments to the dispensaries for patients in up to five counties at a time.
She’s helped patients who were dying of cancer, who have heart disease or HIV.
After the Health Department lifted the patient cap, as the threat of COVID-19 escalated, about 10 people asked if they could add her as a caregiver, but MJ Freeway’s delays in implementing the rule have stopped them.
“I do have patients who are waiting, and who have been trying to add me on a daily basis,” she said.
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