Medical marijuana users are preparing for shortages when Montana’s leisure market opens

More than a year after voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Montana, anyone over the age of 21 can now drop into a pharmacy and buy cannabis. That’s what medical marijuana user Joylynn Mane Wright is worried about.

Wright lives in Prairie County, the state’s fifth least populated county, with nearly 1,100 people. She is already driving about 35 minutes to get to the marijuana outpatient clinic closest to her home, which is 2½ hours northeast of Billings. And now she’s wondering how much harder it will be to get the cannabis she uses to relieve the chronic pain she developed after a back operation in 2017.

“I’m really worried about supplies and what it’s going to cost,” she said.

For Wright and the approximately 55,000 other Montananers who hold medical marijuana cards and use cannabis for cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, central nervous system disorders and other disorders, the question is how recreational marijuana will affect their ability to get access to their medication.

Other states have had shortages shortly after their recreational marijuana markets opened. In January 2020, when recreational marijuana became legal in Illinois, some pharmacies had to close their doors or impose limits on purchases. The same thing happened in Colorado and Washington when the recreational market opened in these states.

Pepper Petersen, president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild and a medical marijuana provider in Helena, said he has asked his patients to fill up because he believes state dispensaries will run out of pot in the short term.

“We’re going to get cannabis shortage. Access will be a problem until supply can catch up with demand, ”said Petersen. “How can we produce enough product for thousands of new users in January? The answer is that we can not.”

In Wright’s case, inventory is not an option because of her fixed income, she said. She wonders how high the price of a rolled-up joint, which now costs nearly $ 8, will rise and whether she will have to drive even further to get her medication.

Jared Moffat, a campaign manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, said a state’s market usually takes six to 12 months to stabilize after recreational cannabis becomes legal. One of the reasons marijuana markets are volatile is that possession and distribution of the drug remains illegal under federal law, so moving products across state borders is not an option to deal with a shortage. Everything sold in a state must be grown in that state.

Adding to the potential supply chain problem is that Montana has limited who can sell cannabis, at least in the beginning. The legislation that set the framework for Montana’s recreational marijuana market gave existing pharmacies an 18-month lead over new manufacturers, meaning new licensed vendors can only enter the market in July 2023.

It leaves medical marijuana customers to compete with recreational users for a limited supply of cannabis.

About 80 pharmacies – only 18% of Montana’s 451 licensed pharmacies – plan to serve medical marijuana card holders exclusively, according to Czelsi Gómez, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Revenue, which oversees state marijuana programs. The rest plan to appeal to both recreational and medical users or only to recreational users.

Some states that have legalized recreational cannabis – including New Jersey and Illinois – have required dispensaries to hold enough stock to ensure medical users can get what they need.

Montana has not introduced such a rule. But Gomez said the 80 pharmacies that will only serve medical marijuana users will protect patients. “We believe the medical institutions are the safeguard to ensure that medical marijuana is available to registered cardholders,” Gomez said.

Some pharmacy owners said they will reserve some of their supplies to ensure medical customers do not run out. But others said they did not plan to hold back, arguing that it would be bad for business.

Barbie Turner, a co-owner of Alternative ReLeaf, a dispensary with locations in Missoula, Polson and Libby, said she is concerned about where medical users will get their cannabis. She said that if serving medical clients requires her to stop selling cannabis to recreational users, she will.

“Not only do our medical patients have a need, they are the ones who have built these businesses. They are the ones who have built this industry,” she said. “So I think we have an ethical responsibility to take care of just as they have taken care of us. “

How big the recreational marijuana market will be is unclear. A study from the University of Montana cited survey results from 2017 and 2018, which showed that about 14% of Montana adults said they used cannabis in the previous month, compared to 9% of adults nationwide.

Petersen and others said that more people can become recreational users when cannabis products that can be smoked or eaten become easier to buy.

Turner said she and her staff have been working for several months to make sure they have enough marijuana, but that she is still concerned about the supply. There are limits, both legally and financially, to how much a provider can grow, she said.

Stores will get some help, she said, with the state’s wholesale market opening in January, meaning pharmacies will be able to sell to each other in bulk.

Erin Bolster, owner of Tamarack Cannabis, said she believes the real test of marijuana supplies will come in the summer when millions of tourists visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in the first season where marijuana is fully legalized. (Justin Franz for KHN)

Although many pharmacies – especially in university towns like Missoula and Bozeman – are preparing for shortages this month, Erin Bolster said she believes the real test of marijuana supplies will come in the summer when millions of tourists visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. .

Bolster owns Tamarack Cannabis in the Flathead Valley, a popular tourist destination not far from Glacier National Park. In the summer of 2020, long before pharmacies could sell recreational cannabis, Bolster said she would get one or two walk-ins and two or three calls a day from tourists who had heard Montana had legalized adult marijuana use and wanted to see if they could buy.

This summer, she believes, the number of customers will skyrocket. That could mean even more competition for Montana’s medical marijuana there and at other popular destinations.

“We have been able to expand production,” Bolster said. “But the question is ‘Did we expand enough?'”

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