Should Medical And Recreational Cannabis Markets Coexist?

Think of the 4-year-old who suffers from seizures. Think of the 17-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer. Think of the 21-year-old who battles lupus and has a limited income.

These are the people the medical cannabis market is designed for.

These are the people Tucker Eldridge, general manager of Nature’s Herbs and Wellness in Colorado, is thinking about when pondering whether or not a medical system is needed when recreational use is legal.

As of now, around 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis in one form or another. Only a handful of those states have also legalized it recreationally.

So when Eldridge—who’s been working in cannabis before and after Colorado legalized—is asked, “Is there a need for both medical and recreational markets? Can these parallel systems coexist?” his answer is yes and yes.

But how the medical and recreational markets actually coexist differs from state to state. A good example is examining Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreationally in 2012, and California, which just recently legalized recreational use but has permitted medical cannabis since the ‘90s.

In Colorado, the two markets operate in parallel.

Eldridge says it’s possible to have the dual system. Although, proving the viability for the medical market is an ongoing process.

For Eldridge the medical market ensures patients, some of whom are younger than 21 years old, get their needed strains, potency and mode of consumption. The recreational market would just not be able to serve patients like the 4-year-old who suffers from seizers.

That’s because there are caps in Colorado’s recreational market, such as not being able to make an edible with more than 100 mg of THC. For some patients, like a diabetic, it’s not reasonable or safe to expect them to eat several edibles packed with sugar to find therapeutic relief. They need something stronger baked into one treat.

And it is less expensive for the cardholder, as they get a significant tax relief on products.

But in a couple of years, the medical marijuana laws will sunset, opening it up for regulatory revisions, he said.

Whereas in Washington, the unregulated medical market was gutted when Senate Bill 5052 was put into law in 2015, nearly two decades after the state legalized medical cannabis and about nine months after recreational cannabis sales were first legally allowed in the state thanks to Initiative-502, which passed in 2012. The highly regulated recreational market laid the groundwork to dismantle the medical system, said Shango Los, podcast host of Shaping Fire and Washington medical patient.

“There were a lot of good people who lost during the transition from medical to 502…”

And while medical still exists in the state, it follows many of the same regulations that binds the recreational system. The shift was a disappointing one for Los, who worked with many small, artisan producers on Vashon Island west of Seattle.

“There were a lot of good people who lost during the transition from medical to 502,” he said. “There were a lot of people who trusted in the state that they would have a future and so they started their mom and pop businesses, they invested their time, they invested their money, they came out of the shadows and started paying taxes and they chose to become legitimate business people because they thought that Washington was going to create this place for them.”

But there wasn’t a place for a majority of them.

“Most of these folks were just small cottage businesses … but the quality was exceptionally high,” he said. “It was very challenging to me, to watch these people who I had interviewed and helped become small business owners and to go through all the trials and tribulations of that, just get cast aside for the new regimen.”

For Los, there’s clearly a way to make the medical system work with the recreational one: fold medical into the recreational market, but give patients a tax relief, allow patients to buy in bulk at a lower price and increase the number of plants a patient can grow.

Amanda Reiman, formerly of the Drug Policy Alliance, said California is looking to reconcile its two very similar cannabis systems—the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act and Proposition 64, which legalized recreational use in the last election.

This would allow patients and recreational users access to the same products. The new system does not specify potency limits or non-limits, though Proposition 64 states that edibles must be broken into standardized 10mg doses. Proposition 64 also states medical patients are exempt from sales tax.

Reiman said that “these aspects of the policy have already been approved, they just have not been written into a unitary system for patients and non-patients.”

That financial break is “extremely important for patients,” she said, as medical patients are already dealing with medical bills and usually need more cannabis than a recreational user. Plus, like Colorado’s Eldridge said, it’s important to have the medical system to serve those who are under 21 years old.

Additionally, local cities with a robust medical market would have the opportunity to opt out of having a recreational market, leaving the medical market intact and available for patients.

“This is unlikely. What is more likely is that places that currently have no cannabis regulations at all might choose to only allow medical dispensaries once the state licensing starts,” she said. “However, since Prop 64 gave adults the right to cultivate for themselves, a locality cannot ban personal cultivation for medical or adult use purposes.”

Legalizing cannabis allows for an over-the-counter model that opens up cannabis to be easily accessed and used as an alternative medicine, she said.

Every state does it differently. But the medical market does serve a purpose—one that’s not going away, even if cannabis continues to be legalized recreationally.

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