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THIS WEEK IN WEED

Getting a medical marijuana card is easier than you think

The hardest part was printing it out. Now, even with recreational shops closed, I can get tax-free cannabis legally delivered to my doorstep.

A patient purchases medical marijuana inside New England Treatment Access in Brookline in 2019.
A patient purchases medical marijuana inside New England Treatment Access in Brookline in 2019.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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If you’ve flipped on the news at any point during your weekslong-and-counting quarantine — or, God forbid, caught sight of your unkempt reflection — and thought, “…pass the weed,” know that you’re not alone.

Marijuana sales spiked across the country last month, as Americans prepared to settle into a long period of isolation. And my inbox lately is full of newly homebound folks thinking about dancing with the devil’s cabbage for the first time, or the first time in a long time.

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Some are just bored. Others are confronting their own mortality. A few think it will cure or prevent COVID-19 (nonsense). A lot of them can’t sleep. Most are just scared.

Of course, many were already consuming cannabis to cope. Or at least they were, until Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker last week shut down the state’s recreational marijuana stores, saying they draw too many out-of-state visitors to risk keeping them open amid a pandemic.

That decision left a lot of people in the same position as one colleague, who called me over the weekend about this dilemma: She has long used marijuana to treat severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, but as a transplant from another state who arrived after recreational shops opened here in late 2018, she figured — perfectly reasonably — that it was unnecessary to register as a medical marijuana patient when she could walk right into a store and buy the stuff without any paperwork. Now, with recreational shops suddenly shuttered, she’s dry and not high, much to the detriment of her productivity and quality of life.

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But luckily for her and the many other “recreational” consumers who use marijuana for essentially medical purposes, Baker has allowed medical marijuana dispensaries (and hybrid recreational-medical shops) to continue serving registered medical marijuana patients. And thanks to some recent regulatory changes, getting your medical marijuana card in Massachusetts is now easier than ever.

How do I know? Because I did it last week, and the process was a breeze. Here’s how it works:

The first thing you need is a recommendation from a doctor who is registered with the state as a “certifying physician." For a majority of doctors and nurse practitioners with this designation, issuing marijuana recommendations is the entire basis of their practices. In other words, it’s pretty unlikely that your pediatrician or primary care physician is low-key handing out pot permission slips on the side. You’ll have to go to a specialist.

Fortunately, these aren’t hard to locate. Several national chains offering medical marijuana doctor appointments operate in Massachusetts. There are also solo or small-office practitioners who will give you a little less “I can hear your glaucoma from here” and a little more personalized care, which may better suit those with less previous pot experience or more complicated health situations. Either way, check out cannabis-specific message boards for recommendations from connoisseurs of marijuana medicine, or read reviews on sites such as Yelp, Weedmaps, and Leafly.

Which diagnoses qualify you for medical marijuana? Massachusetts law includes a short list of serious conditions, including HIV and Parkinson’s disease — but also allows physicians to recommend cannabis for anything else they believe it will help treat, including PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain, and so on.

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And thanks to a temporary Cannabis Control Commission process meant to support social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak, initial appointments (and required annual certification renewals) can now be conducted over the phone. The agency also recently eliminated state fees for medical patients.

Appointments typically run $150 to $250. That’s admittedly out of reach for some, but don’t give in to sticker shock if you can help it — there’s a big upside.

First, medical marijuana is completely exempt from the effective 20 percent tax on recreational pot.

Second, medical dispensaries are allowed to deliver to patients, for a small fee.

Third, medical dispensaries are allowed to offer sales, discounts, and loyalty programs, while recreational shops cannot. Many dispensaries offer especially steep discounts to new patients, hoping to earn repeat business. They’re also required to offer special standing discounts to low-income residents.

Fourth, medical marijuana edibles are permitted to be more potent than those on the recreational market, meaning people with higher tolerances won’t have to gorge on half a pound of mediocre milk chocolate to feel a buzz.

Finally, there are more medical dispensaries than recreational stores, and many fewer patients than recreational consumers. That means you’ll have more convenient shopping options and no lines to wait in.

I was able to make an appointment two days after I initially inquired, but other providers say they have same-day availability. I paid $175 in advance, and a friendly assistant took down my personal information. She told me that with the recreational market closed and telemedicine suddenly allowed, her office was busier than ever, though all the physicians were working from home and consulting with patients remotely.

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The doc called at precisely the appointed hour. I told him I had previously used cannabis to help treat an unusual sleep disorder and cope with stress, he joked about the Biblical figures he suspects were stoners, and that was that. (OK, he also asked about other medications I was taking and whether I’d had any serious surgeries or health conditions, along with some other basic stuff.) People with more complex medical issues may wish, or be asked, to provide medical records, but I didn’t have to.

That evening, I received an email from the doctor’s office with a PIN number. I punched that into a state website, along with a picture of my driver’s license and a recent utility bill proving I’m a Massachusetts resident, and bam: I had a digital copy of my temporary but fully valid medical marijuana card, with a permanent one set to arrive by mail soon. The cannabis commission even went and automatically pulled my terrible driver’s license photo out of the RMV’s database so I didn’t have to upload my own, less embarrassing headshot.

The only hiccup: You need to present a paper copy of your temporary card to buy anything at a dispensary, and I don’t own a printer. Luckily, the dispensary I visited was happy to print it out for me. Other than that, it was easy. A worker at the counter ran my information against the state’s patient database, and I got the green light.

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So there you have it. A couple of phone calls, $175, and you’re back in business. What recreational shutdown?

* * *

Of course, there’s more to know before you plunge headlong into cannabis.

For starters, colleague Felicia Gans maintains this handy map of marijuana stores and dispensaries.

Overwhelmed by the selection, or unsure which method of consumption to start with? Naomi Martin has you covered with this exhaustive how-to on shopping in Massachusetts dispensaries.

And before you go smoking the stuff out of tinfoil (that’s a hard “never”) and scorch your lungs right when you need them the most, or doubling down on the edibles that “aren’t working” after 20 minutes, do everyone a favor and read my guide to getting high responsibly and legally.

One last pro-tip: If you do you join the ranks of medical marijuana patients, remember that many truly rely on cannabis to treat profound medical conditions, not all of which are externally apparent. It’s not a suffering contest, but it’s also not the let’s-get-high club. Enter this community with respect and a little humility and you’ll find you’re quite welcome.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.