Marijuana consumers flock to medical market
With recreational sales shuttered, people are seeking options
MASSACHUSETTS RESIDENTS CAN no longer walk into recreational marijuana shops, which have been ordered closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to get weed. Instead, former recreational consumers are flocking to the medical marijuana market.
“We’ve had a tremendous influx of patient appointments over the past week since they’ve had the shutdown of recreational, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down,” said Kathleen McKinnon, the owner of Alternative Wellness Centers, a Worcester-based company that employs certifying physicians who recommend medical marijuana.
Between March 23, the day Gov. Charlie Baker closed non-essential businesses, and April 1, the Cannabis Control Commission processed 1,300 new patient registrations for medical marijuana, commission executive director Shawn Collins said at a Friday meeting. That was more than two-and-a-half times the 500 new patient registrations processed in the prior 10-day period.
According to commission statistics, the medical marijuana industry served 35,800 unique patients in February and dispensed 34,300 ounces of medical marijuana. In March, medical marijuana treatment centers served 37,500 patients and dispensed 38,500 ounces of marijuana.
Under Baker’s orders designed to stop the spread of coronavirus, medical marijuana businesses are deemed essential health care providers and can stay open, with social distancing measures in place. Adult-use businesses are deemed non-essential and had to close. Despite pressure from recreational business operators, Baker had refused to reconsider their designation, saying he does not want out-of-state consumers traveling to Massachusetts to buy pot.
Baker has also taken measures to expand the use of telehealth, so people do not have to go into a doctor’s office unnecessarily. Similarly, on March 20, the Cannabis Control Commission began allowing doctors to certify new medical marijuana patients using telemedicine. More than 30 providers have been granted state waivers letting them provide certifications through phone or video consultation – and business is booming.
McKinnon said her company had been seeing 100 to 150 patients a week, with six providers in five offices. In the last week, after the company closed its offices and shifted entirely to telehealth, it hired two more providers and added more shifts. Doctors are seeing more than 300 patients a week. “We find many recreational users are actually using it for medical purposes,” McKinnon said. “Those are the people we’re seeing now.”
Some dispensaries are reporting an uptick in medical consumers. Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, said his dispensaries in Bridgewater and Great Barrington are seeing maybe a couple dozen new patients a day. “I’m hearing anecdotally that patients who let cards expire are renewing them now that they don’t have other options,” Pollock said.
Business owners note that the closures only recently went into effect. “There’s generally some lag time between when cards are issued and when they’re used because not everyone is ready on day one to go to a store,” said Keith Cooper, CEO of Revolutionary Clinics, which operates dispensaries in Cambridge and Somerville.
The higher numbers beg the question of whether people applying for medical cards are actually ill, or are looking for access to marijuana for recreational purposes.
People involved with the industry say many medical patients simply find it easier to buy on the recreational market. They may not want to pay to visit a doctor, or they may worry about having their name in a state database for buying a product that is federally illegal.
Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said patients who were bedridden, lived far away from a cannabis doctor, or did not understand the application process had not been able to access the medical marijuana system until telehealth became an option. “We’re seeing a lot of patients that were out in regions that didn’t have access to a physician be able to have their initial appointments, and we think that’s wonderful,” Snow said.
Telehealth is also more affordable. Insurance does not cover medical marijuana-related visits, and a doctor’s visit to a cannabis specialist generally costs around $175 to $200, Snow said, though some doctors charge more. She said the cost of a telehealth visit generally ranges between $75 and $175.
At the same time, medical marijuana may also be seen as a way into buying tested, legal products despite the closure of recreational shops. Generally, medical marijuana is available to patients tax-free and in higher doses.
Boston Globe marijuana reporter Dan Adams wrote a column earlier this week documenting how easy it was for him to get a medical marijuana card after paying $175, then telling a doctor over the phone that he had previously used cannabis to treat a sleep disorder and stress.
Jordan Tischler, a former emergency medical physician who now specializes in cannabis, said he too has seen an uptick in patients, both returning patients and new ones. Tischler said he tries to accept only patients who are ill, though he said he has recently gotten more calls from people who are using marijuana recreationally and are just trying to get a card. Tischler acknowledged that there are medical clinics who are less discerning about who they accept. “Certainly, there are several practices that are large for-profit entities…where they simply will provide cards,” he said.
Amy Turncliff, chief scientific advisor of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, which has raised concerns about the safety of marijuana use, said telehealth appointments take away the barrier of having to speak to someone face to face, which might dissuade people who do not actually have a medical condition.
One concern that is being raised within the industry about a potential influx of medical patients is whether there will be enough supply to meet the demand.
Medical marijuana stores must grow their own marijuana under state law, and that will continue. But a recreational cultivator cannot sell to the medical market, since Baker’s order deeming recreational marijuana businesses nonessential does not allow cultivators with a recreational license to plant new crops.
Cooper said Revolutionary Clinics, which runs medical dispensaries and also sells wholesale on the recreational market, has been able to divert marijuana that would be sold recreationally to medical sales. Pollock said Theory Wellness can continue growing indoors. But Theory Wellness’ outdoor cultivation facility is only licensed for the recreational market, so it cannot grow for the medical side.“Right now, we’re OK. The longer this lasts, the more the impact on the supply chain,” Pollock said.
Members of the Cannabis Control Commission, at Friday’s meeting, discussed whether it might be possible to allow cultivation facilities now licensed for the recreational market to sell to medical retailers, but no decision has been made yet.