A pot shortage that has marred the rollout of recreational weed sales in Illinois is also affecting the state’s medical marijuana program — despite promises from state lawmakers and protections built into the law — leading some to question why more wasn’t done to ensure patients could continue to get the marijuana they need to treat their conditions.
Less than two months after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the historic bill legalizing recreational pot use in June, he approved another piece of legislation that made the medical program permanent and allowed patients with a host of new conditions to qualify for licenses.
The laws failed to ensure more pot would be cultivated in the state until this coming summer, when 40 licenses will be issued to small-scale craft grow operations. But even then, it will take months to grow their first crops.
That leaves the state’s 21 existing cultivation centers to pick up the slack and meet the increased demand. So far, they haven’t been able to, patients say.
Mark Anderson, a medical cannabis patient from DuPage County who uses the drug to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, first started seeing a downturn in September. It’s gotten worse.
“It’s just been a mess in terms of supply,” said Anderson. “Medical patients are very much suffering. There’s literally nothing.”
Anderson went to MedMen in Oak Park on Wednesday and left without buying any of the few flower options available, which he said weren’t up to his quality standards.
“I wouldn’t touch it,” said Anderson, who reviews cannabis on his website, Officer Dick Downey’s Pot Report.
Another medical patient, who uses pot to treat chronic pain and asked not to be named, said the supply at her chosen dispensary, Greenhouse in Mokena, has been “noticeably worse” since December. That Greenhouse location is among a handful of medical dispensaries that weren’t able to start selling recreational weed due to local bans, meaning the shop’s stash isn’t being tapped by a flood of new customers.
The woman said she’s having a hard time getting her hands on edibles that are crafted by James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Mindy Segal and produced by River North-based Cresco Labs, a firm that operates multiple dispensaries and cultivation centers across the state.
“I’m frustrated because this is a product which really helps with pain control,” said the woman, who is part of a program implemented last year that offers medical cannabis to people who have been prescribed opioid painkillers. “In the meantime, I’m wasting my money trying other less desirable products.”
California-based MedMen said the firm’s Oak Park and Evanston locations are attempting to “manage supply and demand” by limiting recreational sales to four hours each day. Greenhouse didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The roots of the problem date in part to when the legislation was being drafted last year.
Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, said industry stakeholders were worried about the state doling out too many grow licenses and creating “a massive oversupply,” like in Oregon. Additionally, Althoff said, allowing more large-scale cultivation centers could have hindered craft growers attempting to establish footholds in the nascent industry.
Restricting the number of cultivation licenses allowed the original growers that supplied the medical cannabis industry to cash in on the legalization of recreational weed, she said.
“Most of them haven’t come into an area where they have made significant profit,” noted Althoff.
Those growers pushed to delay the rollout of recreational weed sales until April, according to Althoff, who said the additional three months would have given them time to build up supply.
“You can’t turn on the dime,” she said.
State officials who have repeatedly pointed to the protections built in the law for medical patients are now acknowledging the shortage is affecting those folks. In a letter sent to dispensaries Jan. 10, state regulators said there were instances of medical patients not getting what they needed and warned shops that they must prioritize patients.
Toi Hutchinson, Pritzker’s senior adviser on cannabis control, said Friday that regulators are now refining tools to track and monitor pot sales and could potentially issue fines or citations to shops that violate provisions protecting individuals in the medical program.
“We will take all actions available under state law to ensure the supply to medical users, and we will work with stakeholders and lawmakers to ensure that we have all available tools to enforce the law, as well as consider additional regulations and technical changes to meet the needs of both medical and recreational users,” Hutchinson said.
Officials are now exploring how to allow patients to purchase medical cannabis from multiple stores, Hutchinson said. Currently, those individuals can only get pot products from a single dispensary of their choosing, though they can purchase recreational weed that’s subject to much higher taxes.
Conflicting language in the recreational and medical pot laws could potentially complicate the supply issue further.
The medical cannabis law allows medical patients to purchase an “adequate supply” of 2.5 ounces of weed every two weeks. But under the recreational pot law, the “adequate supply” dispensaries are required to set aside for medical users is defined as being “comparable in type and quantity to those medical cannabis products provided to patients and caregivers on an average monthly basis” in the six months before Pritzker signed it into effect on June 25.
Althoff, a former Republican state senator, acknowledged the dueling definitions will require a “legislative fix.”
“That is something that has come on the radar and is something that will need to be addressed potentially during the next General Assembly,” she said.
The stash stores are required to set aside fails to take into account the increased demand from the new medical cannabis users accepted into the program during the last six months of 2019, when 11 new conditions were approved for use.
In fact, the number of new patients increased by 27 percent, to nearly 100,000 by the end of December, up from nearly 79,000 patients in the medical cannabis and opioid alternative programs in June, according to figures released by the state.
Dispensaries sold nearly 2,000 pounds of cannabis flower to medical patients last month, a 54 percent increase over the amount sold in December 2018. In the coming months, up to 128 new recreational dispensaries could open across the state.
Some dispensaries say they can’t get enough weed from cultivators to meet the growing demand.
Abigail Watkins, a spokeswoman for Dispensary 33 in Uptown, said the shop currently has five different types of cannabis flower available for medical patients, down from nearly three times that many strains just a few months ago. Jonah Rapino, a spokesman for NuMed, said the company’s West Town store has also had a hard time stocking up on flower for months.
“We believe that dwindling supply leading up to Jan. 1 was a combination of the cultivators getting ready for the adult-use rollout in combination with a large percentage of medical patients stocking up, especially on [flower] in fear of the adult-use program threatening their supply,” he added.
Indeed, Anderson said he predicted there would be a run on supply in October and began stocking up on product that he’s still relying on. Nevertheless, he believes the state should have done more to ensure dispensaries didn’t run out.
Despite growers expanding facilities, ramping up operations and consistently planting new crops, industry analysts agree the effects of the shortage will likely persist for months.