Ohioans are blowing up the phone lines at a call center in Independence where 15 operators working for a private company aptly called Ohio Marijuana Card are logging 500 or more calls a day.

The conversations often lead to a doctor's appointment as thousands of qualifying patients seek permission from the state to purchase, possess and use cannabis to treat 21 eligible ailments. Ohio Marijuana Card, which charges $280 for the doctor's visit and consultation (not including the state's $50 filing fee), says eligible patients are getting medical marijuana cards within 10 minutes of leaving the office.

The state has issued more than 3,500 cards and counting. But the sheer volume of the calls and long line of customers indicate much higher demand as cannabis hits the shelves this week at CY+ dispensary near Steubenville, the only of 56 dispensaries with final state approval and ready to open. More shops plan to open before February.

Cultivators had pushed the state to get their product into testing labs, according to private workers involved in the process. With all hands on deck, some facilities installed sophisticated machinery and staffed up in less than four months, then waited for state validation to arrive a couple weeks ago.

With anticipation mounting, the work of doctors and patient advocates shifted gears last month when the state’s online registry opened for medical marijuana cards.

“It was like a free-for-all. We had 4,500 people to register in two weeks,” said Brooke Boyd, who manages Ohio Marijuana Card's Akron office, where the company employs its sole records keeper. The company is working with 13 of the 353 doctors certified by the state by the end of 2018 to recommend marijuana.

 

Patient prepping

Ohio Marijuana Card has doctors in or near Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo. The Akron location is booming. Located in the basement of an inconspicuous building on Eastland Avenue, the office confirmed 42 patient visits scheduled Friday, breaking the daily record of 26 set in September.

Tim lives a semipublic life selling used cars on a family farm, which he tends.

Last week, he was among the patients seeking medical marijuana cards who were in the Akron office's waiting room, which is decorated with marijuana leaf wallpaper.

“I’m not sure [giving my last name] would hurt. But I don’t know that it would help,” he said.

Tim didn’t get approval, yet. Boyd’s staff sent him away with an application to request prior medical records documenting his qualifying chronic pain. He had surgery to straighten his knees as a toddler. Last summer, he was ejected from a vehicle in a 60 mph car crash, shattering a heel and ankle. And he’s got joint pain from chronic rheumatoid arthritis, which makes for fumbling fingers when he plays piano or guitar.

Boyd said patients with verifiable and qualifying health issues can get a state marijuana card emailed to them within 10 minutes of leaving the office. Patients also get a placard with the company’s green logo on one side and a map of 10 dispensaries within an hour of Akron.

Most of the dispensaries won’t be ready this month. As the infrastructure for processing, testing, growing and selling matures, Boyd said supply should catch up with demand as patients could get registered and visit a dispensary within the hour.

Tim is hoping to return with his medical history so he can replace naproxen and other medications with something more natural. Dr. Melanie Duhamel, the doctor on staff in Akron and sometimes Dayton or the newest location in Toledo, said about a third of patients are initially turned away because they don’t show up with their medical records.

“We are not a card mill,” said Dr. Steve Davis, a 20-year emergency room physician in Canton. Davis, who's already considering a larger office than the space at 157 Wilbur Drive NE in North Canton, said he's not making money on recommending medical marijuana, and he doesn't intend to for some time. After witnessing fatal opioid overdoses and prescribing drugs that fail to manage pain, "it’s one of those things that we feel very passionate about helping patients get back self-control, self-determination and relief."

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Criticized by some colleagues for even contemplating the drug, Davis gives an open and honest consultation about the benefits and limitations of cannabis. Too much, he said, and the patient can build up a tolerance or experience adverse side effects like the ones they sought to treat. His clinic emphasizes micro-dosing, or small amounts that allow patients to “self-regulate” their bodies’ homeostatic mechanisms with naturally occurring chemicals like CBD and THC, which "work in concert with other chemicals" in marijuana.

“You can live in that range for years,” said Davis, adding that at hundreds of dollars a month, patients may not be able to afford more liberal amounts of marijuana.

 

Painful waiting

Two middle-aged men entered as Tim left the Akron waiting room. They came to see Duhamel about relief for multiple sclerosis. Both declined to be named because they did not want to discuss in public their medical conditions.

“It’s like pulling hot barbed wire through your nerves. I could eliminate four medications I’m on with medical marijuana,” one man said of pursuing edible cannabinoids. He can’t feel the right side of his body.

Heat exacerbates the suffering of MS. If it gets too hot, the man said, he feels homicidal.

The other patient said he’s looking for “just something to make me feel calmer and sleep better.” He has a less severe case of multiple sclerosis, but was recently diagnosed with bladder cancer. “I don’t take the medications anymore,” he said. “They just make me feel worse.”

Duhamel said she’s seen more than 300 patients since joining Ohio Marijuana Card in September. Last week, she sent one straight to the hospital for walking pneumonia after a routine examination. She can think of only three turned away for lack of a verifiable chronic illness covered by the state's Medical Marijuana Control Program. She said she rarely sees would-be patients trying to get pot for recreational purposes or a marijuana card to protect them if police find traces of the drug in their systems.

“Most people have been self-medicating for years, but we haven't known until recently the medicinal benefits of marijuana,” said Duhamel, who graduated in 2017 from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In the past few months, her patients have “run the gamut,” she said. Children with seizures, seniors with age-related complications, Tourette's syndrome, back pain, botched surgeries, cancer. The list goes on.

“I try to be as helpful as I can,” the doctor said.

 

The Canton Repository reporter Kelly Byer contributed to this report. Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.