Merging of marijuana markets gets mixed reviews
One year into the merged medical and recreational marijuana market, the reviews are mixed.
State officials say the new medical system has been a positive step. Store owners say the new setup hasn’t been effective.
But everyone agrees on one thing: Far more people are using marijuana medicinally than the 24,000 people statewide who have registered under the new law.
“The patients that are using it for medical reasons aren’t seeing a savings enough to substantiate doing what the state wants them to do,” said Loren Carlson, owner of Cannabis Country Store in Battle Ground. “The state’s not giving the medical patients enough of a break.”
The goal of the Cannabis Patient Protection Act (Senate Bill 5052) was to bring medical and recreational marijuana producers, processors and retail stores together under the regulation of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.
The new law, which went into effect July 1, 2016, aligned the largely unregulated medical market with the recreational market and created medical endorsements for stores, medical marijuana consultants and a database of medical marijuana users.
Medically endorsed retail stores must employ at least one consultant, who undergo 20 hours of training and can assist patients in selecting products for medical use. The consultants are also the ones who enroll medical marijuana users into a state database. Joining the database — the most controversial component of the law — is voluntarily.
Those who do enroll must provide an authorization form filled out by a medical provider and are issued a card. In turn, those enrolled are exempt from paying sales tax on the products they purchase from retail stores and are able to grow marijuana for medicinal use.
But many say the 8.4 percent savings isn’t enough incentive for people to jump through the hoops of joining a database, especially since marijuana is legal for recreational use.
Before the law’s passage, the state estimated as many as 90,000 people would enroll in the database. That estimate was based on numbers in Colorado. But, one year in, the state has issued 23,997 cards to adults and minors using marijuana medicinally.
Health officials suspected the 90,000 estimate would come up short because in Colorado, the medical user database was set up before recreational marijuana use became legal, said Kristi Weeks, director of the state health department’s office of legal services. That wasn’t the case in Washington.
Still, when the illegal medical dispensaries operating in other areas of the state closed with the law change, sales spiked at retail marijuana stores, Weeks said. In May 2016, the licensed stores had $80.6 million in sales. In August 2016, after the law changed, sales were up to $110.2 million, she said.
“While we don’t know this, we believe this is from the former medical users moving over to the regulated stores,” Weeks said.
But state health officials know those sales include people who didn’t enroll in its database.
That’s true for Amy Kennedy-Palma of Battle Ground. She uses marijuana to manage her anxiety and sleep issues. Her husband, Carlo Palma, also uses marijuana medicinally. Palma retired from the U.S. Army in 2014 after his second deployment overseas. When he came home, he was prescribed a litany of medications to manage anxiety and depression and the side effects that came along with those drugs.
Tired of the pharmaceuticals, both talked to their doctors about using marijuana and getting cards for medicinal use. Their doctors, however, told them there wasn’t much benefit to registering unless they planned to grow their own marijuana. So, they opted against registering in the database.
Instead, once a week, Kennedy-Palma visits Cannabis Country Store in Battle Ground to buy various products that are available for purchase by anyone 21 or older.
For the couple, the availability of the products has been life-changing — they’re no longer taking any of the prescription drugs — but the merged market didn’t have any bearing on their decision to begin using marijuana medicinally.
And local store owners say they see that a lot.
High End Market Place, which began issuing medical cards as soon as the law took effect, has enrolled more than 1,000 people in the state database, said Morgan Hutchinson, co-owner of the store. Many people who enroll are doing so in order to grow their own marijuana, but sometimes they return for products found to be beneficial for various medical ailments, she said. As an extra incentive, High End offers an additional 11 percent discount for medical users.
At Main Street Marijuana, which just started enrolling patients in the database this month, the medical market makes up a small percentage of sales, said Ramsey Hamide, co-owner of the store. In the last month, Hamide said, his two Vancouver stores have enrolled just four or five people per day into the database.
“It’s pretty underwhelming,” he said.
But Hamide said he knows more people are using medicinally, based on the types of products they’re purchasing. The same is true at High End Market Place. Both stores have seen an increase in people wanting CBD products, the owners said.
Many medical users want products with higher levels of CBD, a non-psychoactive component of the plant, and lower levels of THC, the component of marijuana that gets people high. As demand for those products has grown, stores have put pressure on producers and processors, who are now making more of those products available, Hutchinson said.
State officials are happy to see those products hitting the shelves after a slow rollout, Weeks said. They’re also pleased to see more producers testing their products for pesticides and heavy metals — a result of the state offering a seal of approval for products meeting the higher quality assurance for medical products, Weeks said.
One area of concern for the state health department is the medically endorsed stores that are not meeting all of the requirements under the law, Weeks said. Under the law, medically endorsed stores must have at least one consultant on staff and must be able and willing to enroll people in the database.
“Unfortunately, stores have gotten endorsements and aren’t currently meeting the requirements,” Weeks said. For example, not all medically endorsed stores are enrolling patients in the database, she said.
“It is confusing for patients, and it’s something we hope gets straightened out soon,” Weeks said.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board oversees the issuance of medical endorsements for stores. The agency is aware of the problem and is working on a resolution, said spokesman Mikhail Carpenter.
Despite that issue and the less-than-projected number of database enrollees, state officials say the first year of the merged market has gone well.
“We had a lot of naysayers who said no one will sign up for the database,” Weeks said. “But a lot of people trusted the system, trusted the department of health.”
Medical marijuana by the numbers
Statewide numbers, as of July 12. Clark County-specific data was not available.
Total patient recognition cards created.
Adult patient cards.
Minor patient cards.
Designated provider cards.
Active medically endorsed stores.
Active medical marijuana consultant certificates.
SOURCE: Washington State Department of Health