Losing jobs, being isolated at home and dealing with loss and sickness is likely driving more Floridians to turn to marijuana for relief.
The number of new medical marijuana patients spiked last summer as the first COVID-19 surge led to new cases exceeding 10,000 a day in Florida, an analysis of data from the Florida Department of Health shows.
And even after a decline late in the fall, medical marijuana prescriptions are once again accelerating in the early months of 2021. Numbers are at their highest levels since medical marijuana was approved by voters.
Melanie Bone, a West Palm Beach physician who specializes in women’s health and cannabis treatment, said she’s had more patients in her office since the pandemic began and estimated a 20% increase in the past month. Many of the visits have the same thing in common: Symptoms of anxiety, insomnia, poor appetite, weight loss and depression.
“It’s as though when there is an emergency situation, and you dig deep down into your self to get through something, then you feel very spent,“ Bone said. “I’ve seen people do so well for so long, but then they’re having COVID exhaustion.”
New patients have flocked to Bone’s office looking for ways to cope with the mental health fallout brought on by pandemic, while existing patients have also seen their symptoms exacerbated, Bone said.
Bone is one of more than 2,400 physicians currently licensed to approve patients for medical marijuana in Florida.
After voters approved the medicinal use of marijuana in November 2016, state lawmakers set rules for the program in June 2017. The law allowed medical marijuana for residents with certain qualifying conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, PTSD and other debilitating conditions.
Patients who get approval from licensed physicians can purchase medical marijuana from dispensaries throughout the state. Sales at dispensaries have also soared amid the pandemic.
As Florida began locking down in early 2020, the state issued an emergency order to allow existing patients to re-up their certification via tele-health, but new patients still have to get a consult in person. While dispensaries and doctors offices remained open as “essential services,” Bone said she saw a drop in visits at that time because of the hesitancy for people to go out during the outbreaks.
But overall, the state has 59% more people qualified to get marijuana for treatment than this time last year. The most recent state report lists more than 533,700 qualified patients compared to about 334,700 a year ago.
Jessica Walters, head researcher at CannaMD, said her company has also seen more people come in with anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. CannaMD oversees a network of medical marijuana doctors among its 17 locations in Florida.
Aside from keeping their doors open, Walters said dispensaries having the “essential” label from the state during the pandemic helped normalize the course of treatment.
“I think it has had a very positive effect on how the public views medical marijuana treatment” she said. “I think we’ve removed a little bit of the stigma.”