Medical Marijuana: How Do You Get a Prescription?

medical marijuana, cannabis
Medical marijuana | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Using marijuana to treat serious illnesses isn’t just for hippies and sketchy back alleys anymore. As an increasing amount of states have continued to approve medical marijuana for a number of ailments, using cannabis as a legitimate treatment is coming out from the shadows.

And while the stigma of using marijuana to treat epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and more is fading in a new era of marijuana legalization, it can still be quite a process to get a prescription for legal cannabis use. One of the reasons is that marijuana is still an illegal substance on the federal level, and isn’t technically even allowed for use in medical studies. Recent indicators show that could change, but nothing’s guaranteed until it’s on the books.

For now, that means each state that has approved medical marijuana has its own system for treatment. Each process will be a little different, so keep that in mind if you or a family member are considering using marijuana to treat a health condition. It will be important to check out your local laws to make sure you stay within the confines of state law.

As with most state-level programs, this means access to medical marijuana, including getting a prescription, varies from state to state. Some states allow marijuana as a treatment for just a few conditions, while others view it as an acceptable antidote for almost any malady. Regardless, here are the basics of how you’ll receive a medical marijuana prescription.

Medical marijuana prescriptions

medical cannabis
Medical cannabis | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Right now, 40 states and Washington, D.C. allow for treatment of at least one illness with some form of medical marijuana. However, as we’ve mentioned before, marijuana in any form is still outlawed by the federal government. As a result, doctors cannot write a prescription like they would for typical drugs. Instead, they can write a recommendation, stating that a patient would likely benefit from incorporating medical marijuana into their treatment plan. Here’s what the steps could look like for getting a recommendation.

1. Know if you qualify in your state

Medical marijuana is permitted to treat a variety of illnesses, but that list varies based on which of the 50 states you call home. Some states like Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee are only running clinical trials for patients with epilepsy, and are only using CBD oil — an oil extract from the cannabis plant that contains little to no THC, the element in marijuana that causes the feeling of getting high.

Other states allow recommendations for epilepsy treatment only, including North Carolina, Texas, and Utah, to name a few. In many cases, only the CBD oils are permitted in these states as well.

Another 27 states and D.C. allow for marijuana recommendations to be made for a larger number of ailments, though the freedoms vary. Illinois has one of the longest lists of illnesses that can be treated with marijuana products, along with New Mexico and Pennsylvania. California has a shorter list, but leaves the diagnoses open-ended by also allowing “Any other chronic or persistent medical symptom that substantially limits the ability of the person to conduct one or more major life activities.”

To get a full list of the conditions permitted in your state, check out the summary page from Leafly. If you’re still unsure if you qualify, check out the related laws in your state legislature. California’s Medical Marijuana Program, for example, is housed under the state’s Department of Health.

2. Visit your doctor

medical marijuana, cannabis
Medical marijuana doctor | David McNew/Getty Images

Any licensed health care provider should be able to write you a medical marijuana recommendation in your state, as long as you live in a state that recognizes cannabis as a legal treatment. Along with your family doctor, United Patients Group also states that you should be able to get a written recommendation from a physician’s assistant, osteopathic physician, naturopathic physician, or psychiatrist.

Depending on where you live, this process can be even easier. One Tech Insider reporter described how she paid $30 for an online consultation with a licensed physician, who approved her for medical marijuana treatment in California in under an hour. Not every state offers such programs (or the medical marijuana delivery to go with it), but startups like this will only continue to spread.

3. Purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary

SAN FRANCISCO - APRIL 24:  Alternative Herbal Health Services worker Jason Beck packages medical marijuana April 24, 2006 in San Francisco, California. The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement last week rejecting the use of medical marijuana declaring that there is no scientific evidence supporting use of the drug for medical treatment.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Marijuana worker | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The written recommendation you receive from a doctor can then be taken to a medical marijuana dispensary for purchasing the necessary cannabis products. As United Patients Group points out, some states will also require that you show proof of state residency and prove you are 18 years or older. In some states, the written recommendation can also allow patients to grow their own marijuana, within the parameters of what the state permits.

Oils, edibles, and numerous strain of weed will be available to you, so if you don’t know what will be most helpful, do your research ahead of time and go to a reputable dispensary. A knowledgeable staff will be able to help you choose which products are right for you.

Medical Marijuana Identification Card

 Lucas Thayer holds his medical marijuana ID card during a demonstration in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice July 12, 2005 in San Francisco, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Lucas Thayer holds his medical marijuana ID card during a demonstration in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice July 12, 2005 in San Francisco, California. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You’ll be able to purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary with the written recommendation and valid state ID, but many patients also apply for and receive a medical marijuana ID card. In California, a dispensary will likely need to call the physician who wrote your recommendation for verification. While this normally isn’t an issue, the marijuana ID card eliminates that step.

In some states like Pennsylvania, receiving the marijuana ID card is a required step for becoming a medical marijuana patient. This is also the case for states like New York. Those ID cards are entered into a state registry, often under the departments of health. That allows dispensaries, physicians, and law enforcement officials to easily verify that you are legally permitted to possess small amounts of marijuana — up to whatever the legal amount is for your state.

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