Health Department increases medical marijuana staffing as law change calls for quicker patient application turnaround

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A change to the Medical Cannabis law that requires patient applications for medical marijuana cards be processed more quickly is likely to be a challenge for state employees – at least for now.

After months of dealing with an onslaught of patient and business applications that resulted in long wait times and confusion among licensees, the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Program is beefing up its staffing. And it will need to if it plans to be in compliance with changes to the law that now require it to process applications in 10 days as opposed to 30.

Gov. Tate Reeves recently signed updates to the Medical Cannabis Act into law, including the mandate that processing times for patient medical cards be more than cut in half.

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The law change is a big deal to patients, said chair of the new medical marijuana advisory committee Jeff Webb.

“It just shortens the entire process,” Webb said of the law change. “Sometimes in the past, it’s taken up to 60 days. Now that product is available, patients are eager and may want to be weaning themselves off of other medications.”

But some of those new hires recently began training, meaning the 10-day turnaround is still out of reach.

“I will go ahead and tell everybody we’re out of compliance on the 30 to 10 and will be for a while,” State Health Office Dr. Edney said during a recent cannabis advisory committee meeting.

The cannabis office, which is under the state health department, started training contractors last week to help handle patient applications for licenses. In addition, the office’s interim director Laura Goodson told the committee it was hiring five new staffers in the month of April.

Goodson said the office is getting about 150 and 200 new patient applications a day. Just over 6,500 people had been permitted licenses as of last week.

In a statement, the health department confirmed it is ramping up staffing. Spokesperson Liz Sharlot said employees obtained through the contract will be trained in the health department regulations and the policies and procedures of the program.

Goodson told the committee the office had 12 employees at the start of the month. Without the help of contractors, they alone have handled applications from patients, cultivators, processors, workers and testing labs. At one point, the office had just four employees. It had grown to eight by January.

“Honestly, between the cards and the compliance, it was heavy,” Goodson said during the committee meeting regarding workload. “But it is definitely getting better. And with the contractors, it’s going to help tremendously because we will be able to shift everybody else in house to the compliance team.”

The office plans to divide the state into districts, each with its own set of state employees, who will handle cultivators and other cannabis-related businesses in designated regions.

“I’m really hoping in the next couple weeks, they will be meeting that 10 days (requirement),” Webb told Mississippi Today.

Webb is a part-owner in four dispensaries across the state. He’s also the new advisory committee’s first chair. The committee will meet regularly and pass on recommendation to the Legislature for future tweaks to the program’s bill.

Steve Merrit, the chief operating officer for major cultivator Southern Sky Brands, is the committee’s vice chair. The advisory committee was created by the Cannabis Act and calls for nine total appointments split equally among the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house.

Edney and Dr. Justin Turner, a health department physician in internal medicine, are also committee members. Other members are: patient advocate Austin Calhoun; physician Dr. Randy Easterlying; optometrist Dr. Minh Duong; cultivator Patrick Malouf; and Department of Revenue Commissioner Chris Graham.

The committee is also watching the prices of products – which right now, are leaning high.

Webb expects the market to level out without needing lawmakers to intervene, but everything from the costs, to card turnaround and taxes are something Webb and other committee members will continue to watch to determine recommended changes to the law.

Webb said the committee wants to hold quarterly meetings but is planning for its second meeting to be scheduled soon.

By Sara DiNatale, Mississippi Today