Filing cabinets, gray cubicles and three-ring binders of department policy conjure an image of state government that disguises a more pregnant message. A reflection of the times can be found in heaps of bureaucratic paperwork, and in 2015, there is a clear image of an American population that enjoys getting high on marijuana.
Twenty-three states and the nation’s capital have legalized the drug for either medical or recreational use, and as resistance to usage weakens in the wake of 1970s court hearings examining the substance’s decriminalization, governments find themselves in need of computer systems that support a function with relatively little historical backing.
Both Hawaii and Maine, two states separated by thousands of miles, have for years allowed marijuana for medical use, and last year recognized a need for better systems to keep track of medical marijuana registrants. Through partnerships with NIC, both states developed new systems that launched earlier this year.
Russell Castagnaro, president of eHawaii.gov, explained that the system was developed as part of a broader organizational change that transferred the state’s medical marijuana registry from the watch of the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Public Health. The governance of medical marijuana may have once been considered a matter of keeping the public safe, but in 2015, public health is the more salient issue.
Castagnaro called the system a success. Since starting development in spring 2014 and launching Jan. 1, about 2,000 people have registered online and another 1,000 paper-based applications were fed into the system, he reported, estimating that the advent of online applications has saved workers as much as 500 hours so far this year. The development of an interdepartmental system for checking medical marijuana status has also saved time and strife for law enforcement and physicians.
For law enforcement, validating the legitimacy of marijuana officers found was a gray area in past years, Castagnaro said. “They had to actually call someone before to check the database, which was essentially an Excel spreadsheet, to find that,” he said. “Now they have an online system they can confirm that the person is on almost immediately.”
A $35 fee charged to applicants funds the system’s ongoing maintenance. Users prefer the online system, Castagnaro said, because they can track the progress of their application, whereas with the paper-based system, there was no feedback until they either received their card in the mail or didn’t. The new system under the Department of Health also puts medical marijuana users at ease because there is less fear of legal reprisal.
“Since marijuana is in such a strange legal place with it being a schedule 1 drug and yet legal for medical purposes in Hawaii, people are naturally very uncomfortable with who’s got the information and that they had to contact the police to get on the registry,” he explained. “Whether rightly or wrongly, the perception was that it was something to worry about.”
An online system also makes authenticating physicians easier and less prone to fraud, and it’s easier for those authorizing medical marijuana use because the state’s system integrates with other online systems already used by health-care professionals, Castagnaro said.
“You need reporting and you need transparency for your system to have any sort of competence,” he added. “Also, to be able to run a reasonable medical marijuana or even recreational marijuana program, you have to really be able to look at the information. A paper-based system will just clearly not support that and is easy to commit fraud with.”
More than 5,000 miles to the east, Paul VandenBussche, president and general manager of the Maine Information Network, oversaw development of his state’s new system, which was developed over most of 2014 and launched in February of this year. As in Hawaii, VandenBussche explained that combating fraud was a reason for launching a digital system in Maine.
“There are state statutes that say the Department of Health and Human Services must report physician-issued certifications for medical marijuana, and before the certification they had no idea how many certifications were actually being issued,” he said. “The fraud possibility was through the roof via paper versus this system.”
Physicians and patients each hold a copy of the certification, which adds protection for dispensaries against being defrauded and potentially losing their licensing. A standardized, statewide authorization for patients supported by the online system gives everyone peace of mind, VandenBussche said.
“It’s also recorded on [the dispensary’s] end as well that this individual came in, so before fraud could have been prevalent," he added. “One person could have visited all nine [dispensaries] on their day off if they wanted to and stockpiled for a weekend.”
A digital system also allows the state to track usage for planning purposes. While Hawaii authorizes growers who dispense to medical marijuana users directly, Maine uses the dispensary model. Tracking by ZIP code where users live will allow the state to allocate its resources for future dispensaries more efficiently, he said.
VandenBussche said the numbers for Maine’s system haven’t been released yet, but they will be sometime this summer. Based on the feedback they’ve gotten so far, the system has been a success, he said, from both patients and physicians who say a digital system is more controlled and protects everyone involved for a medication that likely won't go away anytime soon.
“Every state has their own priorities in how they need to go ahead and implement a system,” VandenBussche said, “but it’s nice when NIC states can take part like this, and hopefully some of those other ones that jump on board can borrow from [our] systems and get the ins and outs of how it works and why it’s gone so well.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.