Ohio’s first two weeks of medical marijuana sales brought high prices on a limited supply because of a lack of growers, testing labs and processors — and especially nearby dispensaries.
The industry is pushing forward even as the state’s medical board considers whether more conditions can be treated with pot, including controversially, opioid addiction.
The growing pains were anticipated, said Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association of Ohio.
“From an industry standpoint, I think we always expected a limited number of dispensaries with more rolling out in the following months,” he said. “We’re actually not that far off where similar states were when they first launched their programs.”
Ohioans spent $333,592 on 46 pounds of medical marijuana during the first dozen days it was legally for sale, according to the state’s Medical Marijuana Control Program. The figures work out to $453 an ounce on sales between Jan. 16 and Jan. 27.
But none of that money has yet to be spent locally. The first few dispensaries open for business are hours-long drives from Dayton.
“Right now, my patients on the registry are all hypotheticals,” said Dr. F. Stuart Leeds, a practicing physician and Wright State University assistant professor of family medicine who is certified to recommend medical cannabis.
Nine dispensaries have provisional licenses to open in the Dayton region, including those in Butler, Clark, Greene, Montgomery and Warren counties, but it may be March before one opens.
Two dispensaries in the area owned by Pure Ohio Wellness could be ready for business in early March, said Larry Pegram, the company’s president. The dispensaries at 1875 Needmore Road in Dayton and 1711 West Main St. in Springfield are due to open when the company has an adequate supply of cannabis produced at its own facility in Mad River Twp. in Clark County, Pegram said.
Calls and emails seeking comment for this story from the license holders of another dispensary planned for Dayton and ones in Beavercreek and Monroe were not returned.
The law authorized medical marijuana use by patients with 21 conditions, including AIDS, cancer multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Whether medical marijuana could be used to treat more conditions is a question under examination by the State Medical Board of Ohio, which recently closed an annual petition period where Ohioans can try to expand the list.
Of 110 petitions submitted, a review committee allowed just nine to move forward. The nine petitions seek to add to the list six conditions: autism spectrum disorder, chronic anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder, depression, insomnia and opioid use disorder.
Leeds, Rosenberger and Robert Ryan, executive director of the Ohio Patient Network, each submitted a petition seeking to add opioid use disorder to the list of conditions allowed to be treated with medical cannabis.
Leeds said the scientific literature on marijuana’s medical efficacy remains “somewhat sparse” due to the federal government’s continued ban of the drug, which effectively curtails its study.
But the limited circumstantial and epidemiological evidence available supports the idea that cannabis may be effective in treating opioid use disorder by maintaining abstinence and preventing relapse, he said.
The data also indicate medical cannabis is “opioid sparing,” Leeds said.
“You can use cannabis instead of opioids for chronic pain and a number of other diagnoses so that patients either don’t ever end up exposed to opioids at all or they are able to use much lower doses of opioids for a shorter period of time,” he said.
After a review by an expert committee, the full medical board will deny or adopt the six conditions by June 30.
Adding more conditions to the list won’t help opioid users and but harm others in the process — including young children, said Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) board.
“It’s a frightening place to be with the ongoing expansion of the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” she said. “There’s a suggestion that we put acne on the list, that we put anxiety on the list — at some point, where does it stop?… We’re trying to get opioid users to take control.”
Jones-Kelley said the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in other states brought an increase in traffic fatalities from drivers under the influence and emergency department visits by youngsters and infants who inadvertently ingested cannabis products.
“We have a variety of concerns,” she said. “And that doesn’t even mention workplace issues and employers.”
Leeds said cannabis should be on an “evidence-based footing” with other drugs, but rigorous testing of medical marijuana can’t happen until the federal government lifts Schedule 1 restrictions.
“Obviously, if you say we can’t study it because it doesn’t work, then how would you ever have studies that show that it works?”
The first Ohioans to purchase medical marijuana forked over $45 to $50 for a tenth of an ounce, but the price is sure to decrease, Rosenberger said.
“Once we have more cultivators, once they are able to use their scale — all those sorts of factors come into play — that number’s going to come down,” he said.
Dispensaries in Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania with newer programs also experienced higher initial costs. A current review of online pricing guides shows the cost of medical marijuana pricing in those states ranging from $200 to $400 an ounce.
In December, the outcome of a court case granted another large grower a license to open in Dayton. About three weeks later in January, Certified Cultivators also received a provisional license to process medical marijuana at the same facility at 1654 Springfield St.
Originally denied a cultivation license, Certified Cultivators had to do a quick about-face on rethinking building plans and restart a permitting process, said Scott Miller, director of operations and compliance.
The Level 1 cultivator is allowed a 25,000-square-foot growing area, which Miller said if all goes well should produce a first crop in the fall and support 20 jobs.
“The ideal goal is nine months from now,” he said. “I’m sure there are always roadblocks along the way. Hopefully there are none.”
Another operation, Ohio Clean Leaf LLC is operating a Level 2 – up to 3,000-square-feet facility — not far away at 2046 Valley St. in Dayton.
Other area cultivators include Paragon Development Group, a Level 2 facility at 6212 Executive Boulevard in Huber Heights, and a Level 1 facility in Yellow Springs operated by Cresco Labs. Cresco Labs also owns one of the first dispensaries in the state to open, CY+ in Wintersville.
Only plant material for vaping is available because no processors have been approved to begin making products like edibles, oils and tinctures. Smoking medical marijuana is forbidden by the law approved in 2016.
As the program’s patient and caregiver registry went online in early December calls to a Bellefontaine-based helpline went up nearly fourfold and again doubled when sales started last month, said Parker Lawrence, president of Extra Step Assurance, the company contracted by the state’s pharmacy board to operate the helpline.
“We see a trend of getting someone on the phone and maybe they ask one question and it leads to three, four, five other questions to really help the patient or caregiver along the way.”
Though Lawrence would not reveal the actual number of calls handled, he said the company’s custom database contains more than 5,000 question and answer data-points.
“It’s not often someone can stump us with a question for the state of Ohio right now,” he said.
But the 10 call center agents handling calls 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday will not offer a reply if a caller asks whether medical marijuana will work for them or a loved one.
“Our call center team does not give medical advice, but we can help them along the way with the process for them to talk with a health care professional,” Lawrence said.