Ohio celebrated its first day of medical cannabis sales in Ohio on January 16. After a disappointing four-month delay for the program’s rollout — which was initially scheduled for Sept. 8, 2019 — four of the five officially-approved dispensaries opened in mid-January in Sandusky, Canton and Wintersville.
After the online medical marijuana Patient and Caregiver Registry opened up on Dec. 3, almost 5,000 patient recommendations including people living with one or more of 21 qualifying medical conditions under Ohio law (like chronic pain, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, PTSD and Crohn’s disease) were quickly entered into the system by licensed physicians within less than a month. Many such patients camped outside in anticipation of the dispensary openings.
But despite the excitement around Ohio’s long-overdue opening since the medical marijuana bill was passed in 2016, options for purchase remain limited. Smoking marijuana remains illegal in Ohio, but patients can still purchase dried flower.
Currently, flower is sold for $50 per 2.93-gram package, or what is affectionately known as an “Ohio tenth.” (There’s also a 90-day limit for patient possession of eight ounces.) Other products will roll out in the coming months, including THC and CBD oils, edibles, patches, lotions and tinctures.
According to Mahja Sulemanjee Bortocek — Director of Marketing and Outreach at Grassroots Cannabis, a vertically integrated cannabis company which will open dispensaries in Newark and Cuyahoga Falls at the end of February — these early limits in product availability are normal for new medical cannabis markets.
“The first few weeks are always slow, and the biggest complaint from patients is that there’s not enough product and not enough of a variety,” she explains. “The market’s not mature enough to have anything much more than dried flower. But you’ll start to see more products like oils. There will be more tinctures coming on the market, you’ll start to see topicals and patches coming on the market.” And, based on her own experiencing in opening dispensaries in three other states, she argues that the burgeoning market will catch up quickly to patient demand — in six months to a year, she estimates.
Moreover, dispensaries in Ohio are regulated by the state Board of Pharmacy and well-integrated into the medical system, which Bortocek thinks might help to destigmatize the use of medical cannabis at first. Even if there’s a pathway to recreational cannabis in Ohio in the future, she says, “There’s always going to be a population of people who really need cannabis as medication. It really helps with the stigma and lends more support from physicians, and it opens up possibilities for more patients coming to the dispensaries.” Soon, Bortocek argues, skeptical Ohioans will learn that “cannabis is really like any other industry, except that we have better practices.”
And despite some complaints from patients about long lines and not enough product to go around, sales in Ohio’s first month of medical marijuana availability certainly didn’t lag. Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program reported $75,000 in sales on opening day alone. In total, as of Feb. 1, Ohio patients had spent over $330,000 on 46 pounds of cannabis in just two weeks, topping several other states’ opening months in sales.
Still, “cannabis deserts,” where there may be hundreds of miles between dispensaries, persist. But 56 provisional licenses have been granted to dispensaries that will crop up across the state over the coming months, leaving Ohioans with many more options.
Though many Ohio legislators were wary about the introduction of a medical cannabis program, many advocates hope it will pave a path to easing Ohio’s acute opioid crisis. Widespread opioid addiction and mental health conditions have led to dire public health circumstances in the state, which is among the country’s top five in terms of opioid-related overdose deaths.
Moreover, Ohio has higher rates of cognitive and mobility-related disabilities, as well as serious mental illness, than the national average, exposing a distinct need in the state for access to medical cannabis. “Cannabis is just so effective for pain and as a sleep aid and anti-inflammatory, so you’re really able to get away from some of those narcotics,” Bortocek explains.
Advocates believe that the sky is the limit for Ohio’s medical cannabis landscape, as more products become available, more physicians become certified to recommend medical marijuana, and more licensed growers and testing labs open up over time. And as the industry expands, says Bortocek, local organizations will have to start taking stances and building policies around cannabis.
Ohioans will have to wrestle with questions like, “How is this going to affect society? How is this going to affect businesses?” says Bortocek. “And that will really require more public health understanding and clear policies around what’s best for Ohio.”