Prime Pa. drug official denies blame for botched medical marijuana steering, however her claims don’t add up

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Harrisburg, Pa. — The chief of a state company that didn’t make clear guidelines round dependancy therapy and medical marijuana — an motion that had severe penalties — continued to disclaim blame whereas talking earlier than state lawmakers this month.

Jennifer Smith, secretary for the Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications, additionally doubled down on a proof that shifted accountability to the federal authorities and county officers — with out acknowledging that each federal and county officers dispute her claims.

“I assumed her response was completely insufficient,” state Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester) informed Highlight PA, after questioning Smith.

A collection of investigative tales by Highlight PA final 12 months revealed that state officers didn’t make clear federal guidelines round dependancy therapy funding and medical marijuana use, sowing widespread confusion amongst employees on the entrance line of Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic. In a single case, a 24-year-old Bucks County man, Tyler Cordeiro, was wrongly denied opioid dependancy therapy funding and died from a drug overdose just a few weeks later.

A month after Highlight PA’s first investigation, the federal authorities modified its coverage, eliminating the language that induced probably the most confusion. Below the brand new steering, cash from the federal Substance Abuse and Psychological Well being Companies Administration “might not be used to buy, prescribe, or present marijuana or therapy utilizing marijuana.” However the language makes it clear that federal cash can fund dependancy therapy and different providers for individuals who occur to make use of marijuana.

Throughout a March 3 funds listening to, Lawrence learn from Highlight PA’s protection for practically three minutes.

“I need to know why DDAP sat on this federal steering for 17 months and didn’t share it with different state and county companies,” Lawrence informed Smith.

“Thanks for asking that query,” Smith replied, “and for giving me the chance to set the document straight based mostly on maybe some inaccuracies or deceptive … reporting by Highlight PA.”

She didn’t specify what she thought-about inaccurate or deceptive concerning the reporting. Previous to publishing its investigations, Highlight PA shared detailed questions and findings along with her company.

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Smith acknowledged that the division acquired clarifying info from the federal Substance Abuse and Psychological Well being Companies Administration in a January 2020 e mail — 17 months earlier than her division shared the steering. However she claimed her company was not given “permission to distribute that info past the attendees of the decision, which was restricted to 1 particular person from every state.”

Emails obtained by Highlight PA present a federal official invited the Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications’ deputy secretary to a Q&A session “on the marijuana language” and different points in November 2019.

The federal company then despatched written clarification to the division on Jan. 1, 2020, emails present. A spokesperson for the federal company beforehand mentioned it shared the written steering with Smith’s division and comparable companies that coordinate dependancy therapy providers in different states.

In neither the November 2019 nor January 2020 emails did the federal company say state officers couldn’t share the knowledge with different companies. The Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications’ press workplace didn’t present or level to different emails or paperwork to substantiate Smith’s declare that the division was not allowed to distribute the knowledge.

And federal officers have insisted they thought-about the January 2020 e mail a proper communication that the Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications had the authority to share.

“SAMHSA needed to ensure states knew how SAMHSA funding might and couldn’t be used,” a spokesperson for the federal company informed Highlight PA in September.

Not less than one different state offered extra steering to its suppliers. The Oregon Well being Authority launched public steering dated Nov. 18, 2019 — days after the scheduled cellphone name with SAMHSA — that clarified the medical marijuana funding difficulty and famous there was flexibility.

“Like all different states, [Oregon Health Authority] consulted with SAMHSA to make clear and perceive the brand new particular situations and shared that info with Oregon suppliers,”Aria Seligmann, an company spokesperson, informed Highlight PA in an e mail.

Smith additionally informed lawmakers that her division inspired county drug and alcohol places of work to succeed in out on to the federal authorities to make clear the problem — an account that leaders of these places of work have disputed. That was a current change, they informed Highlight PA in September.

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And the division’s personal data forged doubt on Smith’s statements that her company constantly referred medical marijuana inquiries to the federal authorities.

E-mail exchanges in March and April of final 12 months, as an example, present officers with Delaware County’s drug and alcohol workplace asking for and receiving steering from Smith’s company earlier than an area nonprofit added medical marijuana restrictions to a participant settlement. An official with the Delaware County nonprofit lifted the restrictions after talking with a Highlight PA reporter in September.

A DDAP spokesperson, Stephany Dugan, declined to touch upon the trade between the division and Delaware County. Dugan provided two examples of when the division directed inquiries to the federal authorities. Each emails had been from August 2021 — 19 months after SAMHSA first shared its written clarification.

By that time, Highlight PA had already reported on the results of the division’s failure to share the steering, and the federal authorities had modified its coverage.

Conflicting messages

Susan Ousterman, mom of the Bucks County man who was wrongly denied dependancy therapy funding, referred to as Smith’s response to Lawrence’s questions “considerably infuriating.”

“Like I had mentioned from the start, you may’t right one thing should you don’t acknowledge that there was an issue,” Ousterman informed Highlight PA. “And so they nonetheless haven’t acknowledged that something was … achieved fallacious.”

Ousterman reached out to state officers with issues about her son’s case and entry to dependancy therapy in early 2021 and stayed in contact with them for months. She additionally raised issues concerning the accuracy of a state promoting marketing campaign that guarantees to get everybody into therapy no matter their entry to insurance coverage.

Emails Highlight PA obtained by means of Proper-to-Know requests present widespread confusion and conflicting messages over what counties ought to do.

Jodi Skiles, a bureau director for the division, defended the promoting marketing campaign in an e mail to Ousterman in late Could, telling her that county drug and alcohol places of work develop their insurance policies based mostly on the division’s guidelines.

“And, our requirement is to fund the uninsured and underinsured with the State and Federal cash that we allocate to every SCA,” Skiles wrote, referring to the places of work. “In addition they have an area match.”

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However many counties believed federal cash was off limits if sufferers used medical marijuana for psychological well being or substance use points. And employees in some counties took the restriction additional, working as if all cash from county drug and alcohol places of work was off limits to folks with a medical marijuana card for these causes, Highlight PA discovered.

Skiles’ statements to Ousterman in Could 2021 additionally battle with later ones by Smith. Smith informed Highlight PA in August that it was as much as the counties to resolve what funding they felt comfy utilizing.

Regardless of Smith’s public problem to Highlight PA reporting, inner emails present the information group’s investigations prompted adjustments.

After Highlight’s first story revealed in June, the division’s communications director, Ali Gantz, wrote to colleagues that “this piece is doing extra hurt than good by doubtlessly holding folks again from calling the hotline and/or searching for assist in the event that they obtain MMJ.”

However Gantz additionally instructed updating info within the division manuals to “present additional clarification,” which the division later did. And Jennifer Newell, one other bureau director, instructed clarifying with county drug and alcohol places of work after they might use state cash to help folks, saying there “appeared to be some confusion round that.”

Emails present the federal company emailed Division of Drug and Alcohol Applications officers on July 30, informing them that the federal authorities was updating its coverage and eradicating the language that induced probably the most confusion.

“FYI — Feels like we have to get this out to the sector or Highlight might be throughout us for not speaking the change,” Smith wrote to others in her division on Aug. 2, shortly after 8 a.m.

The division despatched out a bulletin hours later, notifying drug and alcohol places of work, suppliers, and the general public concerning the change.

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