As Ohio’s medical marijuana industry finally takes off, some patients and advocates are griping about costs that put it out of reach for many people.
A steep price tag stems partly from the lack of competition, as Ohio only has seven dispensaries spread throughout the state, mostly in rural areas, experts said. Costs are expected to drop as more dispensaries open and the industry finds its footing.
In the meantime, patients openly acknowledge buying the drug on the black market while they wait for prices to come down. And without insurance to cover the expense, some worry that low-income people might never be able to afford medical cannabis.
The illegality of marijuana at the federal level hampers research into the drug’s medicinal qualities, but limited studies have made some doctors cautiously optimistic about the health benefits, even as they acknowledge more study is needed.
Several local patients said using marijuana has improved their quality of life, but they must stretch their budgets to pay for it or buy it on the street.
“I’m not using as much as I probably need to be using,” said Mary Alleger, 31, of Reynoldsburg, who said she uses cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ongoing pain from a botched medical procedure.
Katherin Cottrill, 33, of Newark, has worked with the patient advocacy organization Ohio Rights Group to acquire a medical marijuana card, but said current costs keep her from even getting started.
“I would have to pay $200 to $250 (just to get a recommendation),” Cottrill said. “And then I have to drive to a dispensary and pay $50. It’s unreasonable for me to even try.”
Michelle Fox, who lives in Newark, uses medical cannabis to treat multiple sclerosis. Her fixed income means she has to choose between buying the drug on the street or paying through the nose at a dispensary.
“I’m on a fixed income,” Fox said. “It’s pricier (at the dispensary), but I don’t want to break the law. It’s a really hard choice.”
For now she rations her supply, she said, and hopes she’ll be able to manage if her symptoms worsen.
Insurance companies have so far refused to cover medical marijuana.
“Because these clinics aren’t under any kind of health insurance scrutiny, they are able to charge whatever they want,” said Emilie Ramach, founder and CEO of the Columbus-based Compassionate Alternatives, a nonprofit group that works with families to help pay for medical cannabis.
Just under 3 grams of medical marijuana costs about $50. Cannabis clinics charge between $125 and $200, and the state charges $50 in fees.
Marijuana is cheaper on the street, patients said.
“On the black market you can buy an ounce for $200,” said Robert Doyle, 61, of Newark, who has a medical marijuana card but still buys the drug on the street due to the cost. There are about 28 grams in an ounce.
Doyle said he’s visited dispensaries in Michigan with prices comparable to the black market, making him confident Ohio’s costs will eventually fall.
Nonprofit groups are helping low-income patients, but their reach is limited. Compassionate Alternatives has helped around 10 families and two caregivers pay for medical marijuana, Ramach said.
“We would like to help as many people as we can,” she said, but the group depends on donations. The group is only a few months old, and volunteers have attended industry events, worked with medicinal cannabis clinics and are active on social media to raise money.
But even if prices drop, clinic costs and fees will remain a barrier for some, Cottrill said.
“What about low-income people who are desperately seeking medication?” she said. “They can’t even afford to pay $50 to get their card registered.”