MMJ Rx: A personal account of (finally) getting a Colorado medical marijuana registry card
I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked through the doors of Silverpeak Apothecary since its debut five years ago as Aspen’s first adult-use cannabis dispensary, yet I never once set foot inside during the five years before that when it operated as a medical cannabis dispensary.
Last month, I arrived at the welcome kiosk in the lobby of Fat City Plaza where my ID was customarily checked. But this time, I came with my medical marijuana (MMJ) card in hand, too, and exclaimed, “I’m now a medical cannabis patient!” while proudly presenting the attendant with the 8.5” x 11” piece of printer paper — the state Medical Marijuana Registry no longer issues actual cards and proof is only necessary once you’re admitted into the store. Patients can also download their card for dispensaries to scan on a mobile phone.
I relocated to Colorado 12 years ago, just as the medical marijuana movement was taking shape, and swiftly found my Denver delivery guy, who I’d buy my weed from weekly up until Jan. 1, 2014 (sorry, Eric). What started early on in my adult life as recreating soon morphed into self-medicating for chronic pain and mental clarity. Cannabis is the cornerstone of my health and wellness routine.
It was only after a visit in July to check out Basalt’s newest dispensary and realizing it was medical-only upon arrival did I recognize I could benefit from obtaining a card and should participate in the pioneering state-regulated MMJ program. The good people at Goodpeople politely sent me on my way with the business card of Dr. Wendy Zaharko, an Aspen-based cannabis physician who’s served patients across the entire Western Slope since 2009.
As one of the first and only remaining MMJ-prescribing doctors living and working in the region today, I set up the appointment for my consultation ($150 for new patients). I arrived with my intake form covering questions about my overall health, family history, exercise routine and cannabis consumption habits. Over the course of an hour, “Dr. Z,” as she is lovingly known among locals, was clear that she does not recommend patients simply looking for relief from anxiety, sleep, depression, ADD/ADHD or bipolar disorder — increasingly common conditions for using cannabis and CBD.
What does classify as a qualifying condition is severe pain. Mine stems from scoliosis and sciatica only made worse after playing tennis competitively for more than a decade. At the end of our in-depth discussion, Dr. Z checked my curve and confirmed I was an MMJ candidate. In addition to purchasing MMJ through a dispensary, Dr. Z also prescribed me with the option of growing 12 plants yielding four ounces of cannabis per month (sadly, growing my own on my Snowmass community garden plot is prohibited for the foreseeable future).
Each caregiver is then responsible for submitting the recommendation directly through the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) Medical Marijuana Registry online patient portal. Each patient submits an application for an additional fee of $25 (a fee waiver and tax-exempt status is also available), which upon approval is valid for one year.
Back at Silverpeak while I eagerly got set up in its system, I asked medical manager Bobby Jones how many patients Silverpeak currently serves. “You’re the 10th,” he said. I was floored. During my exam, Dr. Z warned me about the difficulty of actually applying for a card through the CDPHE website, which Jones thinks has hindered the accessibility for the aging population. The only obstacle I personally found problematic was that the MMJ Registry did not alert me via email (as claimed online) that my application was received, pending or ultimately approved — instead, I logged into my account every few days to check the status manually.
But changes to make the program more user-friendly could be on the horizon when Colorado’s extensive new medical marijuana laws take effect Nov. 14. During its 2019 session, the Colorado Legislature passed a set of bills to allow doctors, dentists, some nurses and certain medical professionals with prescribing power and a “valid license to practice within his or her scope of practice” to recommend medical marijuana. The mandate also gives doctors the ability to recommend medical marijuana for PTSD and autism spectrum disorder, as well as any condition that qualifies for opioid medication. And both sides of legal marijuana sales will also soon have much-needed access to banking services from the House of Representatives’ recent passing of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act.
“I see these new laws going into effect only benefiting Silverpeak and the MMJ program overall,” Jones says. “I am encouraged by the new allowance of doctors and other physicians to prescribe treatments that involve cannabis, without fear of their licenses being jeopardized. As the only dispensary with a medical license in the Aspen area at the moment, I look forward to hopefully receiving more patients eager to avoid the opiate path of pain management, and ultimately anyone looking to treat an ailment without the use of potentially harmful pharmaceuticals.”
Officially setting up an account at Silverpeak as my primary MMJ dispensary, I am now able to purchase cannabis without the 15% retail marijuana tax on adult-use sales. While Silverpeak Farms doesn’t cultivate or sell medical-grade flower, the program also offers additional discounts and allows patients to purchase edibles in excess of the 100 milligram recreational limit per package. Jones personally curates a small selection and if there’s something specific I want to try that Silverpeak doesn’t stock, he’ll order it for me.
While every other area dispensary has phased out MMJ programs due to factors such as the tourist-heavy customer base and the higher revenue from recreational sales to the lack of availability of new products that can meet medicinal needs, Goodpeople has grown its roster to more than 60 patients in three months. And following a Basalt Town Council vote last week, the dispensary can now expand into recreational sales.
“We’re really optimistic that once we open the recreational store, we will use that as a tool to educate potential patients about the benefits of medicinal cannabis and recruit people for the MMJ program,” says Goodpeople co-owner Kale Lacroux. “The recreational legalization of marijuana is never going to happen without medical marijuana being federally legalized first. Just like it has rolled out state by state. So the passage of the SAFE Banking Act and our new state law are just two more milestones that will get us one step closer. It’s just a question of when now.”
Katie Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.
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