By Linda Kor
The first comprehensive statistical report for the Medical Marijuana Program for the months of April 2011 through June 2012 was unveiled this month, detailing statistics on the number of applicants receiving a medical marijuana card and the physicians who issue them.
Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) Director Will Humble noted that the report revealed at least one area of the program would be receiving close attention. In those 15 months, 475 physicians provided certifications to 28,977 patients, however, only 10 physicians certified 13,336 card holders, nearly half of all patients.
“Perhaps the most striking thing in the report is that 24 doctors have signed about 80 percent of the 30,000 or so certifications in year one, and a handful of doctors wrote more than 1,000 certifications. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these docs aren’t acting in the best interests of their patients, but it does give us some insight into which ones we should be focusing on to ensure that they’re meeting our certification expectations,” stated Humble.
Humble also noted that the four medical boards were determining what could be done to ensure that doctors are truly acting in their patients’ best interests, complying with each licensing board’s expectations and meeting the standards for certifications.
“We’re also looking into doing some more intensive medical education among high frequency certifiers and have signed a contract with the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy to help us with surveillance among the certifying physicians,” added Humble.
The report states that during the past 15 months ADHS received a total of 41,476 applications and approved about 98 percent of them, for a total of 40,463. Of those approved, 33,060 were new applications and the other 3,689 were renewal applications, with the remaining nine percent of the applications reporting a change in primary information or status, which requires a new submission. There were a total of 29,804 active cardholders, which included 28,977 qualifying patients and 827 caregivers.
With no dispensaries in operation as of yet, ADHS authorized a little more than 80 percent of the qualifying patients and caregivers to cultivate marijuana. It was also noted that of the total number of cardholders, only 26 percent are female and only 20 percent of the caregivers are female.
To give a perspective on how many qualifying patients reside in each county, the ADHS broke down the number of patients per 1,000 residents according to the county where they reside. In Navajo County, which the report states has a total population of 107,226, there are 446 qualifying patients and six caregivers. Of those totals, 414 of the patients and caregivers are allowed to cultivate marijuana. The county ranks eighth among the 15 counties for the number of qualifying patients per 1,000 residents, with Gila coming in first with 9.22, followed by Yavapai with 8.72; Coconino, 8.38; Mohave, 6.95; Greenlee, 5.13; Maricopa, 4.68; La Paz, 4.58; Navajo, 4.16; Pima, 3.53; Graham, 3.00; Cochise, 2.64; Pinal, 2.63; Apache, 1.92; Santa Cruz, 1.60; and Yuma, 0.95.
Seventy-seven percent of the qualifying patients had one debilitating medical condition, with the remaining 23 percent reporting two or more such conditions. Approximately 70 percent of the qualifying patients, or 19,631, indicated severe and chronic pain as the only debilitating medical condition. Seven percent of the patients listed other conditions that included cancer, Hepatitis C, muscle spasms and nausea.
The report states that it is possible to estimate in further detail the “true incidence” of debilitating medical conditions by examining other data available at ADHS. However, there are statutory restrictions that require ADHS to maintain confidentiality of the medical marijuana registry data. Any public health analysis of this data will be limited in scope, unless the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act statutory elements are amended.
The information in the report was compiled by the ADHS Vital Health Statistics team, along with the University of Arizona College of Public Health, which provided four recommendations for improvement. They include better training for physicians, further examining the nature of debilitating conditions, exploring the possibility of temporary suspensions of cards, and conducting an epidemiological analysis of medical marijuana users to understand public health and safety concerns.
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By Linda Kor