The number of Alaskans using medical marijuana has rocketed upward since medicinal use was legalized in 1998. As of mid-March, 1,855 Alaskans were registered in the state database, a significant increase from the 28 people who were medical marijuana registry cardholders in 1999.
"We expect if recreational use is legalized, the medical program will fall off," said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services. Since 2012, according to Wilkinson, the number of registered users has spiked due to traveling doctors and clinics. The Healing Center Medical Clinic, run by its president Michael Smith, is one of several mobile clinics at which doctors write marijuana recommendations. The Healing Center Medical Clinic website says there will be another clinic in Anchorage the second week of April.
While Smith and his colleagues can prescribe marijuana, they can't actually fill the prescriptions.
"Marijuana is not considered a legend drug, which means a doctor can write you a prescription but you can't get it at a pharmacy," said Premera spokesperson Melanie Coon.
Although the use of medical marijuana is legal in Alaska, the sale is not -- which means that users must grow their own pot to legally obtain the drug. Those with a medical marijuana card are allowed to have up to an ounce of green marijuana, or up to six plants, only three of which can be budding at a time. It is also legal for a patient's designated caretaker to farm cannabis on the patient's behalf.
Marijuana is typically prescribed to help treat cancer patients, AIDS and people with chronic pain. By 2010 the number of legal users in Alaska had more than quadrupled in size, to 130 people. In 2011, 287 people had registered. Roughly a year later, on Nov. 7, 2012, 1,246 Alaskans held medicinal marijuana cards. This year, that number climbed to nearly 2,000.
According to Premera spokesperson Coon, marijuana is seldom covered in health insurance plans. Cannabis "as a rule is an over-the-counter drug," although there are exceptions for "large enough groups (employers)" that want a customized health insurance plan. And despite the growing number of states working towards legalization and decriminalization, Coon said at this time Premera doesn't have plans to expand coverage. Currently, the website for The Healing Center Medical Clinic, which specializes in medical marijuana use, lists charges of $250 for a card renewal, $300 for a new card for a patient with medical records to prove medical need, and $375 for a patient with no records who requires evaluation.
With the lack of insurance coverage for the medical use of marijuana and the prospect of the drug's recreational legalization in Alaska, the small but slowly growing medicinal marijuana group is expected to shrink if voters OK the initiative in the August primary election. Although the state has no plans to cancel the program, the current steps -- and cost -- that go into legally toking would be unnecessary.
Correction: This article originally referred to Michael Smith a doctor with the Healing Center Medical Clinic; he is the president of the clinic but not a doctor.