Imagine being a chronic pain sufferer in rural Utah. Most of your state’s qualified medical providers and medical cannabis dispensaries are located in major urban centers like Salt Lake City and Provo. There aren’t any where you live. Do you have a realistic shot at obtaining legally allowed medical cannabis? The folks at Utahmarijuana.org say it is challenging.
Rural access is a significant issue in Utah. Other states are dealing with it too, but perhaps not to the same extent. Regardless, medical treatments are generally less accessible in rural areas. Everything from seeing a GP to getting a routine MRI is more difficult when you live in a rural location.
Improving Access in Utah
Utah lawmakers understand the challenges of accessing medical marijuana in rural areas. They are working to address that. For example, lawmakers recently approved a fifteenth dispensary license to a rural operator later in 2021. They have also approved home delivery throughout the state. Finally, they are working on ways to get rural doctors involved.
All these things are good things for both medical cannabis patients and the state’s program. But they do raise legitimate concerns. For starters, why are lawmakers singling out medical cannabis instead of looking for ways to improve rural medical care across the board?
Doctors Prefer Metro Areas
If your state allows for the use of medical cannabis, you would likely have to see a doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner to do so. That’s all well and good. But let’s say you live in a rural area and the nearest qualified medical professional is a hundred miles away?
Between commuting and the time spent in the doctor’s office, you are likely to lose an entire day. That is a lot of time and effort just to apply for medical cannabis card. But what can you do? Doctors don’t want to practice in rural areas.
This isn’t a slight against doctors. It is understandable that they prefer metro areas. That’s where the jobs and patients are. But if a state bends over backward to ensure that physician assistants and nurse practitioners can recommend medical cannabis, why can’t they also change the regulations to allow both to practice without direct physician supervision?
Moving Beyond Special Pharmacies
Getting to the doctor is just one issue for rural patients. The other issue is getting to the medical cannabis pharmacy. Also known as dispensaries, cannabis pharmacies are licensed operations that sell only medical cannabis products. Dispensary operators prefer metro areas because these are where most of the customers are.
Lawmakers could take a giant step toward solving the issue in rural communities by doing away with specialized pharmacies. If medical cannabis truly is medication, why not stock it at standard pharmacies? Why not dispense it like any other prescription medication?
An Issue of Federal Law
In fairness to the states, they are doing the best they can with the tools they have. The real heart of the issue is federal law. Because marijuana remains a Schedule I substance, state lawmakers and local business operators have to walk a very fine line. Highly restrictive programs are a result of that fine line being walked.
If federal lawmakers would reclassify marijuana as Schedule II or III, they would free up states to be a bit more liberal with access to qualified medical providers and dispensaries. Rescheduling would open new doors to growers and processors as well. An entire rural business might even grow organically.
Rural access to medical marijuana raises some legitimate concerns. But they are all concerns we can overcome – if we have the political will to do so.