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PA's new medical marijuana effort resembles Big Pharma: sky high prices and lots of shortages

Chris Goldstein, Philly 420

Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 11:11 AM

Some of the items for sale at TerraVida Holistic Center, one of the first medical marijuana dispensary's in Pennsylvania to open Saturday, February 17, 2018 in Sellersville. It had no inventory two weeks after opening.

The price of gold today is about $42 per gram. The price of regulated medical cannabis oil in Pennsylvania is $80 to $144 per gram, if you can even find the rarer substance.

In less than two weeks, one registered medical cannabis patient in central Pennsylvania paid more than $700 for legal products. Another patient estimated her bill to be close to $1,000. These seriously ill residents simply can’t afford to keep using the new dispensaries, and aren’t getting the promised relief.

Launch prices for cannabis wax, live resin, shatter, oils and pre-filled “vape” cartridges were some of the highest ever seen. Half a gram of refined hash oil was on the Pa. menu for $72. That’s a more than four times the same type of product being sold today for $35 per gram in medical cannabis dispensaries around the country.

Then they ran out.

As of this writing, menus at the few Pa. cannabis facilities were down to just two or three choices and some, like Keystone Shops, have already closed the front door. (Although they are taking some limited appointments.)

Right now, one company has a monopoly on production : Cresco-Yeltrah. They have the privilege to set the wholesale price for everyone. But even in their own “CY” flagship dispensary prices aren’t any cheaper.

This is worse than any of us predicted, but not surprising.

The compassionate use effort was supposed to be about getting a beneficial, non-toxic plant to sick residents. Perhaps more than a million Pennsylvanians already buy cannabis underground, or even legally in other states, to deal with various medical conditions.

Back in 2009 a group of advocates testified before the House Health and Human Services Committee, launching the effort. A slow burn persisted. Suddenly, in 2015, a team of Republicans and out-of-state cannabis industry operators came in to rewrite the bill. Home cultivation for patients was eliminated, and so was access to any whole plant material. All of former Gov. Chris Christie’s horrendous regulations were imported from across the river. That’s how Pa. got the bottleneck physician registry and limited operating permits.

Today, instead of holistic access Pa. is running the Big Pharma model of stiff big price hikes and drug shortages.

Seriously ill residents are shelling cash out of pocket, locked into the state’s a catastrophic failure to properly regulate medical marijuana. Zoning was even expensive.

About 400 doctors are certified as practitioners, a handful of the 53,000 who practice in the commonwealth. They often can’t co-charge insurance companies for cannabis recommendations, but they do take cash and credit cards. Some of the Pa. practitioners are even selling dubious “CBD” alternative “dietary supplement” products.

I have to smoke a joint of decent $8.50 per gram street weed to stem my nausea watching it all unfold.

The Pa. Department of Health and the cannabis operators are sticking to their story: Things will get better when more growers come online, they say. Prices will decline. But that hasn’t been the case in New Jersey and New York where some of the same operators hold permits.

Pa. could declare failure immediately and start a vast expansion. That’s exactly what Gov. Phil Murphy is doing in the Garden State. But, in the midst of gerrymandering, budgets and an election year, it seems unlikely to come up in Harrisburg.

Meanwhile, marijuana arrests are actually increasing. One of the reasons could be more medical cannabis patients than ever accessing the underground market. Clearly the financial hurdles of the program alone are a major deterrent to participation.

Since marijuana flowers are still prohibited, police could be arresting a new glut of low-income medical cannabis consumers. Certainly there are many residents seeking the benefits being sold by lawmakers.

One more puff. I’m smoking a popular strain called Sour Diesel that was organically grown in Washington DC. An ounce, 28 grams, would cost $250. These few grams were free to me though. A gift. In Philadelphia, where possession of 30 grams or less is tolerated, I’m not afraid.

Philly exists as an oasis for patients right now. The real answer to all of these bizarre, expensive restrictions is clear; simply ending prohibition. We’re getting there, and learning some important lessons about fair pricing along the way.

Chris Goldstein, Philly 420

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