PORTLAND, Ore. — When states legalize pot for all adults, long-standing medical marijuana programs take a big hit, in some cases losing more than half their registered patients in just a few years, according to a data analysis by The Associated Press.
Much of the decline comes from consumers who, ill or not, got medical cards in their states because it was the only way to buy marijuana legally and then discarded them when broader legalization arrived. But for people who truly rely on marijuana to control ailments such as nausea or cancer pain, the arrival of so-called recreational cannabis can mean fewer and more expensive options.
Robin Beverett, a 47-year-old disabled Army veteran, said she resumed taking a powerful prescription mood stabilizer to control her anxiety and PTSD when the cost of her medical marijuana nearly tripled after California began general sales. Before last year, an eighth of an ounce of dry marijuana flower cost her $35. Now it’s approaching $100, Beverett said.
“It’s ridiculous. The prices are astronomical,” said Beverett, who moved to Sacramento from Texas because medical marijuana is illegal there. “Going to the dispensary is just out of the question if you’re on any kind of fixed income.”
It’s a paradox playing out nationwide as more states take the leap from care-centered medical programs to recreational models aligned with a multibillion-dollar global industry.
States see a “massive exodus” of medical patients when they legalize marijuana for all adults — and then, in many cases, the remaining ones struggle, said David Mangone, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access.
“Some of the products that these patients have relied on for consistency — and have used over and over for years — are disappearing off the shelves to market products that have a wider appeal,” he said.
Cost also rises, a problem that’s compounded because many of those who stay in medical programs are low-income and rely on Social Security disability, he said.
In Oregon, where the medical program shrank the most following recreational legalization, nearly two-thirds of patients gave up their medical cards, the AP found. As patients exited, the market followed: The number of medical-only retail shops fell from 400 to two, and hundreds of growers who contracted with individual patients to grow specific strains walked away.
Now, some of the roughly 28,000 medical patients left are struggling to find affordable medical marijuana products they’ve relied on for years. While the state is awash in dry marijuana flower that’s dirt cheap, the specialized oils, tinctures and potent edibles used to alleviate severe illnesses can be harder to find and more expensive to buy.
“Lots of people have started trying to figure out how to make these concentrates and edibles themselves in their kitchen,” said Travis MacKenzie, who runs TJ’s Gardens, which provides free medical cannabis to children with epilepsy. “There are things that we don’t really want people to do at home, but the market conditions are such that people are trying to do more at home.”
The numbers compiled by the AP through public records requests and publicly available documents provide a snapshot of the evolution of marijuana as more states — Michigan was last in the door, and Illinois is about to follow — legalize pot for all adults.
Ten states have both medical and recreational markets. Four of them — Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska — have the combination of an established recreational marketplace and data on medical patients. The AP analysis found all four saw a drop in medical patients after broader legalization.
In Alaska, the state with the second-biggest decline, medical cardholders dropped by 63% after recreational sales began in 2016, followed by Nevada with nearly 40% since 2017 and Colorado with 19% since 2014.
The largest of all the legal markets, California, doesn’t keep data on medical patients, but those who use it say their community has been in turmoil since recreational pot debuted last year. That’s partly because the state ended unlicensed cannabis cooperatives where patients shared their homegrown pot for free.
There is limited scientific data backing many of the health claims made by medical marijuana advocates, and the U.S. government still classifies cannabis in any form as a controlled substance like LSD and cocaine.
Still, the popularity of medical pot is rising as more states legalize it. There are 33 such states, including the politically conservative recent additions of Oklahoma and Utah. Oklahoma has among the more liberal guidelines for use and has approved more than 100,000 patient licenses since voters backed legalization last June.
Getting a precise nationwide count of medical patients is impossible because California, Washington and Maine don’t keep data. However, absent those states, the AP found at the end of last year nearly 1.4 million people were active patients in a medical marijuana program. The AP estimates if those states were added the number would increase by about 1 million.
As more states legalize marijuana for all adults, some who have been using it medically are feeling disenfranchised.
In Michigan, where medical marijuana has been legal for over a decade, the creation of a new licensing system for medical dispensaries has sparked court challenges as the state prepares for the advent of general marijuana sales later this year. In Washington, medical patients feel they were pushed aside when that state merged its medical and general-use markets, which also is what’s happening in California. Los Angeles dispensary owner Jerred Kiloh sells medical and recreational marijuana and said those markets are quickly becoming one, since few companies are going to produce products for a vanishing group of customers. He said his medical business has dipped to 7% of overall sales and is dropping month to month.
“It’s going to be gone,” said Kiloh.