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Dept. of Health ordered to release data on medical marijuana program to news organization

Independent news agency Spotlight Pa. has asked the department to release the number of patients using medical marijuana as treatment for opioid addiction.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Editor's note: The above video is from May 24.

A panel of Commonwealth Court judges recently ordered the Pennsylvania Department of Health to release data showing the number of medical marijuana patients that have gotten approval from a physician to use cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction, according to Spotlight Pa. 

The ruling ends a legal battle between the Department of Health and Spotlight Pa. which had been seeking that data to "better understand the impact of the agency's unusual and controversial decision to endorse cannabis as a treatment option for opioid use disorder," Spotlight Pa. said.

In an opinion issued last Friday, the panel of judges dismissed several of the health department's arguments against releasing the data.

The agency interpreted patient confidentiality rules too broadly, the judges determined. One of the department's arguments was "underdeveloped" and "miss(ed) the point," Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter wrote in the opinion.

The judges also rejected the department's claim that the release of information could lead to criminal charges against employees.

Spotlight Pa., an independent, nonpartisan, newsroom powered by a partnership between the Philadelphia Inquirer, PennLive, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media, first requested aggregate data on the state's medical marijuana program in June 2021.

Specifically, Spotlight Pa. sought the number of medical marijuana certifications issued for each of the program's 23 qualifying conditions.

The certifications, which are issued by a doctor, are what allow patients to obtain a medical marijuana card from the state and purchase cannabis from medical marijuana dispensaries.

Qualifying conditions for a medical marijuana card include anxiety disorders, severe chronic pain, epilepsy, cancer, or central nervous system disorders.

At the time, Spotlight Pa. was reporting on "the confusion and unintended consequences that followed the Wolf administration's decision to endorse cannabis as a treatment option for opioid use disorder," the news agency said.

Spotlight Pa. specifically requested aggregate data, information that would not identify individual patients, according to the news agency.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health denied the request, so Spotlight Pa. appealed to the State Office of Open Records, which ordered the DOH to release the information, Spotlight Pa. said.

The Department of Health still refused to provide the information, and sued Spotlight Pa. in Commonwealth Court. A panel of three Commonwealth Court judges heard the case in May, and issued its decision last week.

In Friday’s opinion, Leadbetter writes that some information is confidential under the state’s medical marijuana law, but not as much as the department claimed, Spotlight Pa. said.

Leadbetter wrote that “because only patient information is protected, the requested data is subject to disclosure.”

The panel also ruled in favor of the Department of Health in a separate matter, overturning the decision by the Office of Open Records that said the DOH did not prove that certain written policies and procedures did not exist.

In spite of the panel's ruling last Friday, it is not clear when or if the Department will provide the data, Spotlight Pa. said. The department could petition the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and ask for permission to appeal.

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