Pot seekers inundate doctor’s office

Medical marijuana can’t be smoked, doesn’t create high

After a Mirror article Thursday noted that Dr. Liang Bartkowiak would be the first Altoona doctor eligible to certify medical marijuana users, her office was inundated with calls from excited would-be patients.

The callers — many of them men — asked how they could get marijuana prescriptions. Many, Bartkowiak said, implied they wanted marijuana they could smoke to deal with health concerns.

Only two problems: Bartkowiak is an OB-GYN, a doctor who treats women exclusively. And she isn’t going to be handing out smokable marijuana to her patients.

“I was shocked,” Bartkowiak, of Altoona OB/GYN Associates, said Thursday afternoon. “We’re fielding phone calls from male patients who want to schedule appointments.”

Bartkowiak’s struggle demonstrates both the popularity of the state’s budding medical marijuana program and the misconceptions that have already taken root among prospective patients.

With just one doctor approved in Blair County, and no more than one in each surrounding county, Bartkowiak said she hopes to see more availability as the program ramps up.

The state Department of Health says 200 more doctors are in the process of being trained.

In many ways, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is still in its infancy. Several producers have been approved, as well as several dispensaries slated to distribute the drug to approved patients.

But until this week, state officials had not named the doctors who will soon approve patients for marijuana cards.

Bartkowiak said she signed up for a 4-hour training session in hopes of accessing a new tool for her pain-treatment arsenal. As an OB-GYN, she deals with women suffering from endometriosis and severe pain from surgeries.

Many doctors resort to opioid painkillers for those conditions. But with the nationwide opioid epidemic killing thousands each year, Bartkowiak said she would like a non-addictive alternative that can protect would-be mothers and women dealing with crippling pain.

“I still have people who have pain, legitimate pain, and I don’t know what to do for them,” she said. “I don’t know how to help them live through a day-to-day basis, to cope with whatever condition they have.”

Medical marijuana could be a boon for those patients. State law sets the drug aside for certain, specified conditions and requires doctors to sign off on patients who want dispensary cards.

The law also makes clear that the marijuana issued to patients isn’t in the familiar, smokable form and doesn’t create the high commonly associated with the drug. But for those calling Bartkowiak’s office, that wasn’t clear.

“The people calling my office … were not understanding that these are tinctures and vapors and balms in whatever form is targeted to the specific illness,” she said. “I think laypeople are going to need very plain terminology. … You’re going to have to come right out and say, ‘You are not going to get a joint to smoke.’ That is not what medical marijuana is going to be.”

For now, Bartkowiak said she hopes the system will develop further so she isn’t the only doctor approving patients in Altoona. OB-GYNs are in short supply here, she said, and she won’t have time to handle new patients looking for marijuana.

State officials said Wednesday that they expect the first patients to get marijuana within six months.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.

Qualifying ailments

The act authorizing medical marijuana defines a “serious medical condition” as any one of the following:

– Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

– Autism

– Cancer

– Crohn’s disease

– Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity

– Epilepsy

– Glaucoma

– HIV/AIDS

– Huntington’s disease

– Inflammatory bowel disease

– Intractable seizures

– Multiple sclerosis

– Neuropathies

– Parkinson’s disease

– Post-traumatic stress disorder

– Severe chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain in which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective

– Sickle cell anemia

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health

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