TEXARKANA, Ark. — The people behind Texarkana's first medical marijuana clinic are passionate about helping patients access cannabis, and they plan to lead the way across Arkansas.
Dr. David Nguyen, founder and chief physician, and Destiny Moran, location manager, commuted to Texarkana from Little Rock on Wednesday, the first day patients had appointments at the AR Cannabis Clinic location on Jefferson Avenue. The clinic is one of three in the chain now open in Arkansas, with a total of 12 locations planned statewide.
A graduate of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Nguyen has practiced emergency medicine for more than six years. In the course of that practice he realized the need for medical marijuana, he said.
"I've seen the faces of opioid addiction. I've seen the crisis. I see people coming in with withdrawal symptoms, overdose," he said. "I saw the big problem, and I saw that medical marijuana was an alternative treatment that people were getting good relief from. And I thought that it would be a great thing to do to be able to increase access to medical marijuana to patients, who in many cases don't need to be on so many medications."
Reducing stigma associated with medical marijuana is another of the clinic's goals
"In our practice here, we want people to come out of the shadows. We want people to feel good about coming in and seeking alternative treatment," Nguyen said. "We want people to feel safe and feel good about coming in and discussing it without any shame, without any judgment being put on them."
Moran's enthusiasm for work in the medical marijuana industry has as much to do with justice as with compassion for the sick.
"Simply because of the war on drugs, I've noticed that a majority of African-Americans and Latino-Americans were being arrested for medical cannabis. And now that it's starting to be legalized, I've noticed that they're the largest population being kicked out. And so I didn't think that was very fair. I decided I wanted to do something; I wanted to get into the field any way that I can," Moran said.
"I want to keep working my way up into the business to be able to help shine some light on the discrepancies that are going on and the unfairness of the fact that these two races are being pejoratively associated with cannabis, but now that it's legal, we're kind of turning away," she said. "We're just ignoring the people we've been arresting for the past 30, 40, 50 years for the same drug."
AR Cannabis Clinic specializes in one service: certifying that patients have one of 18 medical conditions that qualify them to legally use marijuana as medicine. That does not mean the clinic's doctors diagnose patients; patients must provide medical records proving they have been diagnosed previously elsewhere.
"We actually have a very high standard of documentation proof. We not only require records, but we keep a copy of the records, and we scan and keep a digital copy of the records. So we're audit-ready. Whenever Big Brother wants to come around and take a look at our charts, we will have the proof," Nguyen said.
After discussing their medical history and records with a doctor, patients who qualify receive certification letters. They then use the letters to apply for state registry cards that allow them to buy cannabis from a licensed dispensary.
Nguyen and the business' other two staff physicians do not practice any medicine at the clinics, as that would create a conflict of interest, he said. Medical practices that charge for an office visit and also take a fee for providing a certification letter are "double dipping," a practice that could in the future land them in regulatory trouble, he said.
The clinic's physicians do answer patients' questions about cannabis, especially concerning side effects and routes of administration. They never recommend vaping or smoking cannabis because of potential damage to the lungs, for example. But they leave specific recommendations for different strains and potencies of the drug to experts in dispensaries.
The clinic does not deal with health insurance, either, instead charging a flat $250 fee for certification, payable by cash, credit card or debit card. Veterans, first responders and their spouses get a 10% discount. An installment plan is available for patients who cannot afford to pay the fee all at once. Renewals of previous certifications cost $175.
Despite the common stereotype of the 20-something stoner, AR Cannabis Clinic's typical patient is a 40- to 60-year-old white woman with chronic pain who is taking multiple medications, Nguyen said. Many are veterans, as the Department of Veterans Affairs does not certify anyone for medical marijuana use. The most common qualifying conditions are arthritis, fibromyalgia, pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, Moran said. The clinic does not certify minors or pregnant women under any circumstances.
"A lot of our patients, they just want to be legal. They don't want to have to be worried about the cops coming down on them, and they're trying to find alternatives," Moran said.
Staff will continue to commute from Little Rock until a local staff of four or five, as well as a physician, are hired for Texarkana. The clinic will be open two or three days a week, but phone support will be available six days a week.
AR Cannabis Clinic is at 4415 Jefferson Ave. For more information, visit ARCannabisClinic.com or call 888-454-2111.
Qualifying Conditions for Medical Marijuana in Arkansas
Positive status for human immunodeficiency virus / acquired immune deficiency syndrome
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Cachexia or wasting syndrome
Intractable pain, which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment or surgical measures for more than six months
Seizures including without limitation those characteristic of epilepsy
Severe and persistent muscle spasms including without limitation those characteristic of multiple sclerosis
Source: Arkansas Department of Health