Growing pains: The state’s medical marijuana demand is outpacing supply
Pennsylvania’s still blossoming medical marijuana business has hit a supply choke-point — especially for the “flower,” or dry leaf products — as numbers of approved patients are continuing to grow faster than the buds in the state’s licensed grow rooms.
One patient advocate has described it as a perfect storm, as new grower-processors have been slower to get their product to market than state regulators had expected, and the addition of new conditions for treatment has helped fuel a summer surge in patient certifications.
The result, this summer, has been a rolling shortage of dry-leaf products that, according to anecdotal evidence, has caused some customers to drive for hours in search of the right thing, or, in a very buyer-beware alternative, even hitting the streets for black market weed.
The current squeeze is a function of the two-year-old program’s popularity, state-sanctioned expansions in the forms of medical cannabis that can be used and the conditions approved for treatment, and the lag in expansion of the supply side of the market.
State Health Secretary Rachel Levine approved addition of dry leaf forms of marijuana to the approved menu of cannabis therapies in April 2018, upon recommendation of the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board.
Patients say it saves them money since it requires much less processing than oils, cartridges, creams, pills and other products — and price is an important consideration for a set of therapies that generally are not covered by your typical prescription drug plan.
“What’s happened is there are a lot more patients (in year two of the program), so that demand line has increased dramatically,” said Tim Hawkins, president of the Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based firm that operates as a grower-processor and retail dispensary here.
“And the amount of flower being produced has been exactly the same over that time period.”
The numbers bear this out.
The number of physician-certified patients eligible for medicinal marijuana has jumped from 70,128 at the start of 2019 to nearly 161,273 as of Sept. 1.
It was during the summer that Levine added “anxiety disorders” to the list of conditions approved for the medical marijuana program, though the state Department of Health could not provide numbers on the patients seeking treatment for those.
Meanwhile, the number of growers in production has remained at 10.
A second round of growers was licensed last year, and many of them are now classified as “operational” by the Health Department. But none of them has yet started moving product yet.
That may change soon. A representative of one of those new growers, Jon Cohn, of Agri-Kind LLC, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week that several strains of marijuana are underway at his growhouse in Chester and should be shipping the first week of October.
“We’ll be starting small because when you begin, you start with cuttings or seeds,” Cohn told the newspaper. “So we’re creating mother plants right now and taking clones of them.”
Health spokesman Nate Wardle said the state’s expectation is that several more of the new growers should follow suit between now and the end of the year.
“Once more of those growers start shipping, I think we’ll get things balanced out again,” said Luke Shultz, a patient advocate who sits on the state’s advisory board. But, he and others said, the last two months in particular have been tricky for patients who might be looking for a particular strain of medicinal cannabis that best suits their individual conditions and symptoms.
“We have certainly run out of stock at various times in the last couple of months,” said Tammy Royer, a medical marijuana pharmacist at Organic Remedies, which runs dispensaries in Enola and Chambersburg.
Then, patients are forced into a dilemma of trying to choose between a substitute form which often costs more than the dry leaf, or surfing the internet to see if a close-be store has their first choice.
“We have heard of patients who are travelling for several hours to places that have gotten a delivery that week,” Royer said.
GTI’s Hawkins said the shortages may be most noticeable in the major metro areas, where the largest number of medical cannabis patients are. “We see patients from Philly coming in to our store in Steelton,”he noted, “and we see patients in Pittsburgh going to our store in Erie.”
One problem that Pennsylvania so far seems to have avoided are price spikes.
Sources reached for this story said that unlike, say, crude oil, the supply-demand imbalances haven’t resulted in skyrocketing prices. That may be because state law gives the health secretary here the power to impose price caps if he or she feels prices are out of sync with what’s happening in comparable states and markets.
Levine, to this point, has suggested in the past she wants to let the Pennsylvania market absorb the new grower / processors before she considers such a move.
Regulators have asked patients to be patient with the supply hiccups during the medical marijuana program’s roll-out, noting that since it relies on several levels of commercial enterprise, building demand was a crucial first step.
Some, like Shultz, say a policy change that would really help would be if Pennsylvania would consider permitting the registered patients to grow their own: “It would be a viable option for a number of them, and it would reduce the cost for some of them.”
But that’s a controversial change that would require an amendment to the state’s enabling act, and no one realistically expects that to happen in the near-term future.
The better option for now, he said, is to be patient.
“For the most part, everybody just has to hang in there right now,” said Shultz. “This was just a lot of bad things happening at once.”