When trying to pass medical cannabis legislation, changing a few details might appease the lawmakers skeptical about cannabis. In the case of Pennsylvania, that means patients only have access to the most expensive types of cannabis products.
Pennsylvania has what is called a “no-smoke” medical cannabis program. The intention was to limit patients from the harmful effects of smoking, even though research shows the side effects of cannabis smoke are minimal. Keeping flowers and plant material illegal means patients will be purchasing concentrate products like wax and shatter. Edible tinctures are also an option, but patients will be paying over $100 for 100mg of THC, which could last critically ill patients a few days or a week.
Concentrated cannabis products are popular among recreational buyers because they deliver a powerful effect in a quicker, smaller size. Customers pay a premium for these products when sold by weight, but even more when they are packaged in prefilled cartridges. They are discreet and efficient, and manufacturers are continuously improving the experience by preserving terpenes and the flavors of the strain, giving the user an experience closer to smoking cannabis flowers but without the smoke. As more medical cannabis patients have entered the legal cannabis market, their interest in alternative consumption methods means manufactures are making high-CBD concentrates, cartridges and edibles to meet demand.
Having an open cannabis market where prices are reasonable for these products means more patients can access the right products for their needs and budget. But Pennsylvania’s laws mean very few patients must purchase their medicine at an inflated price. The aforementioned 100mg tincture costs about $12.50 to make, but is priced at over $100 in states like New York, New Jersey and Illinois where medical cannabis is highly regulated and allows for a limited amount of growers. In California’s medical marijuana market, a similar 100mg tincture sells for about $35.
While the “no smoke” rule may have been well-intentioned, it punishes the sickest patients. Pennsylvania’s qualifying conditions top out at 17, all of which are serious enough that they could keep a patient from working, limiting their income to disability assistance. Taking into account the medical bills for these conditions, a patient might have to spend thousands of dollars a month to get relief. The obvious path for these patients who need medical cannabis is a black market where prices are still inflated, but nowhere near a 400 percent markup seen in some medical cannabis programs.
Pennsylvania is a great example of how cannabis legislation can do more harm than good when implemented incorrectly. Restrictive programs that limit the number of growers and the types of products available, that are priced so high and/or taxed so much that patients are unable to afford them will lead to what lawmakers fear the most: an increased black market presence, a collapsed cannabis industry with no customers, sick patients unable to find relief (or find it in other harmful medicines), and wasted time and effort on creating legislation that doesn’t represent the will of the voters.
Even states that have more open cannabis regulation can learn from these programs. Using legal cannabis as a new source of tax revenue drives up prices enough to help fuel a black market. The result is a legal atmosphere that allows for cannabis possession, even if customers are using black market sources.
Depending on the success of Pennsylvania’s medical cannabis program, regulations could change to allow for the sale of flowers, which would be a more affordable source of medicine for patients. But it would have to accompany a more open market and regulations regarding pricing for medical cannabis products. If lawmakers truly want to help patients, medical cannabis needs to be affordable and accessible.
This post was originally published on July 13, 2017, it was updated on October 5, 2017.