Delaware medical marijuana patients in limbo [video]

 (Gene Ashley/WHYY)

(Gene Ashley/WHYY)

In 2011, Delaware became the latest state to legalize medical marijuana through a prescription. Since then, the program has been halted while state leaders figure out how to cope with restrictions from the federal government.

Delaware’s neighbors in New Jersey, and more recently Maryland, have approved medical marijuana.  New Jersey opened one compassion center in Montclair, and is on its way to opening a second farther south. According to state law, Delaware was to have three centers opened, one in each county, by 2013.

The delay has frustrated medical marijuana patients like “Bob,” who lives in New Castle County.  Bob asked WHYY to withhold his real name because he’s afraid of being arrested.

Pain all day

Bob suffers debilitating pain every day as the result of an accident a few years ago.  “It’s a whole lot of constant pain all day, everyday.  The pain just doesn’t stop.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Two years ago, he thought Delaware would finally make it legal for him to access the drug that he believes best helps him manage that pain.  “If I have good medicinal cannabis, I wouldn’t have to take any of the opiates, wouldn’t have to take any of the Xanax.”

Bob says the marijuana eases his pain, while still allowing him to feel like himself.  “When I take all these [pills], I can’t drive, can’t really hold a conversation.  I feel like a zombie. When I’m on pot I can actually be active and talk to people.”

Federal warning

Even though medical marijuana was signed into law in 2011, there are no dispensaries for medical marijuana license holders to legally obtain their pot. Markell says he was notified by Delaware’s U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department shortly after that bill signing.  “That concerned us about whether or not state employees who are involved in these compassion centers could be subject to some kind of prosecution, so we took a step back.”

That delay left medical marijuana patients like Bob in limbo.  Under the law, he’s allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana, but he has no way to legally buy it.

“Its very unfortunate and an iffy subject because I would rather go into a state-certified compassion center and get my medication there,” he said.  “I’d much rather do that.  It’s going to be a better product.  It’s going to be better for the state and better for the patient.”

In limbo

Currently, 27 Delawareans are holding medical marijuana ID cards and are in that same limbo.  It’s something that has vexed Governor Markell as well.  “This has been my frustration.  The federal government essentially has put people in a box where they say, ‘If you need medical marijuana, we’re not going to come after you if you’re using it, but good luck finding it on your own because we’re not really giving the go ahead to any of these compassion centers.'”

But because of the way the law was written, Delaware could be sued for not opening compassion centers.  But Bob says he’d rather work with the state than sue.  New Jersey patients weren’t as willing to wait for the state to act and have sued, accusing the state of dragging its feet in opening compassion centers.

“You’re gonna get more accomplished and more done in a positive manner if you work with them then if you start a fight.”  Bob is urging fellow medical marijuana ID holders to contact their lawmakers and express their opinions.”

Markell says the issue is on his radar, and he’s working on a solution.  “I absolutely share that frustration and communicated it at very high levels, and we’re now working to see if there’s a way that we can keep people as protected from this risk as possible.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal