CA: Medical Cannabis Patients Are Being Pushed Into The Black Market

Photo Credit: Jamie Scott Lytle

As of Jan. 1, adult-use cannabis sales have been legal in San Diego, and many visitors have traveled long distances to witness the inside of an above-ground weed store. Business for legal cannabis storefronts is booming and the tourists are smiling; that is definitely a win for San Diego.

But there are some very real unintended consequences to these new state and local adult-use — meaning 21 and up — cannabis laws that continue to cause great concern.

Legitimate patients who rely on cannabis to treat their serious ailments are being pushed back into an unsafe and unreliable underground market. Mothers, daughters and grandparents who use cannabis oil tinctures to combat various forms of cancer, epilepsy and Parkinson’s Disease are not sharing in the same giddiness that has overwhelmed the out-of-staters who are just searching for a quick euphoric buzz before heading home to Nebraska.

With only 12 retail outlets licensed to sell cannabis in San Diego, the lines and wait times to buy product in these stores have been extremely challenging to endure for disabled and cancer patients. One elderly woman told me that as she stood waiting for 35 minutes outside of one of these stores, surrounded by 20-somethings, she felt “out of place” and described the entire experience as “physically exhausting.”

It is not my intention to demonize legal storefronts. The state has created an overly complicated regulatory structure that has made it extremely costly to be compliant and profitable. These stores are battling ridiculously high state and local taxes, threats of federal intervention and an underground marketplace that seems to grow larger every day. I empathize with the pressure storefronts are under to turn a profit, and I do not judge them for catering to tourists with disposable income who are more than happy to pay the extra taxes necessary to enjoy legal cannabis in California.

But what about the local San Diegans who are hurting? Who is specifically catering to their needs?

The elderly and ailing patients I work with prefer getting their medication delivered directly to their doorstep by cannabis therapy practitioners who operate smaller, delivery-only businesses. These delivery services, currently outlawed in San Diego unless attached to a licensed storefront, have been the backbone of the medical cannabis industry in California for the last decade. For patients battling various forms of cancer, and for whom transportation is not possible, delivery is the only practical option. Many of these delivery-only businesses employ professional dispatchers who can educate patients over the phone about specific CBD tincture ratios and a variety of other medical questions that are extremely important and relevant to the patient’s well-being.

Unfortunately, recent state and local regulations are causing the current medical delivery model to be unsustainable. It is no longer profitable for a company, reeling from the high cost of compliance, to have a dispatcher spend precious minutes on the phone educating patients and building relationships with caregivers. In order to increase overall net income, many businesses have opted to remove the dispatch position completely and push their customers and patients toward an online ordering platform attached to the store’s website. Online ordering is a convenient option for a majority of cannabis users who want something quick, easy and discreet — but it simply is not enough to adequately meet the demands of the sick and elderly medical cannabis patients currently suffering in San Diego.

Beyond San Diego, there are cities located throughout California that have been dubbed “safe access deserts” because their local municipalities have enacted complete bans on the cultivation, distribution and sale of all cannabis products. I know a family that resides in a “safe access desert” and has relied for years on a local delivery service to provide their 11-year-old son with a very specific cannabis CBD oil tincture to treat his specific ailment. This particular delivery service, like many others in California, has been blocked by the city’s current ordinance and cannot receive a local license and therefore is not eligible to apply for a state license; the service was forced to temporarily close for business until the laws have been officially amended. This has forced the family back into the thriving underground market, one that offers lower prices but is ultimately plagued with inconsistencies. Our patients and loved ones deserve better.

The licensed and taxed cannabis industry is new in California, and no one expected the initial roll-out of these regulations to be perfectly crafted on day one. But now that some of the unintended consequences stemming from certain aspects of Proposition 64 are becoming more apparent with each passing day, it is our job as citizens, professionals and patients to push back with persistence and demand that legitimate medical cannabis patients are not overlooked and underserved in California.