Medical Marijuana Patients Say There’s A Pot Shortage In Connecticut

Photo Credit: Mark Mirko

Connecticut’s medical marijuana program today has 12 times the patients as when it began four years ago. While the increase is an index of its success, dispensary owners and patients say it has also caused shortages and inconsistencies that undermine the state’s goal of running a program as well-oiled as any commercial pharmacy operation.

Though the state Department of Consumer Protection (DCP), which regulates the program, has increased the number of dispensaries from six to nine, and recently announced it intended to open as many as 10 more, the number of producers — the businesses that grow all of the state’s legal marijuana — has remained the same. Four producers still supply every marijuana bud, every edible and every droplet of cannabis oil consumed legally in the state, as they did in 2014, when the program began with just 2,000 patients.

There are now 25,786 residents using medical marijuana to find relief from chronic, often debilitating conditions — a 12-fold increase since the program’s birth four years ago.

“The problem is the program’s a success — a huge success,” said Tom Nicholas, owner of Prime Wellness, a dispensary in South Windsor. “We don’t have 25,000 patients because it’s not working. But the problem is the producers cannot keep up with the growth of the patient base.”

“The problem is the program’s a success – a huge success.”
— Tom Nicholas, owner of Prime Wellness, a medical marijuana dispensary in South Windsor

Connecticut’s medical marijuana program is among the most tightly regulated in the country. Unlike in some states, patients are not allowed to grow marijuana themselves.

“We have high-quality medicine in our dispensaries,” said Michelle Seagull, commissioner of the DCP. “It’s all laboratory tested. It’s labeled with active ingredients. Those are big benefits to our patients that are unique to Connecticut.”

Although not organic, all of Connecticut’s medical marijuana must be grown without pesticides and tested for mold, fungus and metals.

But pristine as that medicine may be, dispensary owners say there isn’t enough of it. Certain strains — especially indicas, soothing strains taken at night, and cannabidiol, which has few psychoactive components — are in chronically short supply, they say.

“It’s difficult, because patients come in wanting the medication that gave them relief last time, and we won’t have it,” said Meredith Elmer, pharmacist and co-owner of Thames Valley Alternative Relief. “Many times, we can find them something comparable. But it’s frustrating.”

Supply And Demand

It is difficult to gauge by how much demand has outstripped supply, because DCP does not track how much marijuana is being grown and sold in the program. Producers are limited in how much they can grow only by the size of their facilities. And sales cannot be tracked with tax revenue, because medical marijuana — a prescription medicine — is not taxed.

Through a lobbyist, the four producers — CT Pharmaceutical Solutions in Portland, Curaleaf in Simsbury, Advanced Grow Labs in West Haven and Theraplant in Watertown — declined for proprietary reasons to say how much marijuana they are growing.

Cannibidiol products, or CBD, are in especially short supply, dispensary owners and pharmacists say, shortchanging patients of a medication that is critical for children and working people hoping to find relief without the high. CBD has little to no THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.

But CBD strains, which are younger than traditional THC-heavy strains and less genetically stable, are trickier to grow and often yield less flower. And with demand roaring, Nicholas said there’s little incentive for producers to take a chance on a finicky strain when dispensaries will buy whatever they have to offer.

Paul Kirchberg, a medical marijuana patient and blogger, said shortages of CBD and other strains are common knowledge among patients, and “extremely concerning.” Kirchberg runs the “Dabbin’ Dad” blog, a kind of Consumer Reports for Connecticut medical marijuana patients.

“The growers are growing the strains that are most profitable, rather than growing a range of strains that treat a range of patients,” he said. “And we should have more growers to fill the needs of more patients. I get it — if I’m a grower, if I can’t sell a product as well or if there’s less demand for it, I won’t grow as much of it. It’s business. But that’s why we need to diversify our growers.”

David Lipton, CEO of a production facility in West Haven, strongly disputed concerns about supply, and the availability of CBD in particular, saying his company “is poised to meet demand that’s three times what it is now.”

On a tour of his cavernous West Haven facility, Advanced Grow Labs, Lipton displayed a room full of young CBD plants, 600 of them potted in coconut fiber. “Our CBD products are always on our menus,” he said.

Lipton’s facility has expanded twice since it opened in 2014, and currently fills 41,000 square feet on the site of an old metals plant. Lipton and his three partners estimate they’ve invested about $9 million in the venture. Their 11 flowering rooms — forests of head-high marijuana plants, arrayed in neat rows and bathed in artificial light — have space collectively for 5,800 plants. They have centralized water and nutrient systems to free up space in the flowering rooms, and there are two more rooms — each with space for 600 plants — ready to receive cuttings.

About a year ago, there was a three-week shortage, Lipton said. But the growers came together and committed to building more growing space; since then, he said, product has been delivered smoothly and in no short supply. He estimates Advanced Grow Labs is producing four times the amount of marijuana flower it was in 2014. They’ve expanded from seven employees to 45.

“We don’t regulate the market. We regulate whether there’s a need for more dispensaries or producers.”
— Leslie O’Brien, legislative program director at the state Department of Consumer Protection

Asked about the alleged shortages of certain strains, Leslie O’Brien, DCP’s legislative program director, said the agency lacked statutory authority to require producers to grow specific products. Nor do they regulate prices, as the Department of Health in New York does by setting maximum prices for all medical marijuana products.

“They’re all competing with one another — the market should adjust itself,” O’Brien said. “We don’t regulate the market. We regulate whether there’s a need for more dispensaries or producers.”

But Kirchberg said DCP has created a quasi-regulated market — “an oligopoly,” in his words — that has handed four players complete market share, subject to a regulatory agency that regulates neither price nor variety but simply guards the gate.

“Four growers, nine dispensaries. That’s it,” he said. “I understand the capitalism behind it, but DCP has not created free trade or competition. The market cannot regulate itself because it’s not a true market.”

In Other States

Comparing Connecticut’s medical marijuana program to Rhode Island’s is a study in contrasts. In Rhode Island, which has 18,728 patients, the state’s Department of Business Regulation has licensed 26 producers and “wholesale prices are certainly going down,” said Norman Birenbaum, a policy analyst for the department and the state’s foremost authority on its medical marijuana program.

“When you only have a few key manufacturers, they could be driven to produce only a certain range of products,” he said. “There’s hundreds of strains, hundreds of products: oils, tinctures, capsules, transdermal patches. We wanted them to find that niche.”

Rhode Island producers are much smaller than their Connecticut counterparts; the state has issued three classes of licenses, the largest allowing for 10,000 square feet. Rhode Island also has just three dispensaries, which has inflated prices, Birenbaum said. Gov. Gina Raimondo is trying to raise that number to 15. Connecticut patients, however, can only buy marijuana grown in Connecticut. Because the federal government views marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, it is illegal to transport even legally purchased medical marijuana across state lines.

Unlike Connecticut, Rhode Island tracks the amount of marijuana grown and sold in the program, even counting the number of plants with a tag system. In 2017, 8,563 pounds of marijuana flower were sold in Rhode Island’s three dispensaries. Roughly a quarter of that was grown by producers; the rest was grown by the dispensaries themselves. In Rhode Island, patients can grow up to 12 mature plants and 12 immature plants in their homes, all of which must be tagged. There are roughly 60,000 plants being grown legally in Rhode Island, about one-sixth by producers.

In New York, four of the state’s five original producers sued the New York Department of Health when it decided to double the number of producers in 2017, citing a swelling patient count. A state Supreme Court justice later threw out the suit. In Connecticut, DCP has authority to license as many as 10 producers and no fewer than three.

“Basically,” said Nicholas, the South Windsor dispensary owner, “the state is saying, ‘We’re only running at 40 percent capacity.’ ”

“When we were selecting producers, we were cognizant of their capacity to expand. … Right now, we’re comfortable that they have the capacity.”
— Michelle Seagull, commissioner of the state Department of Consumer Protection

DCP, the producers and the dispensaries agree on one thing: The number of medical marijuana patients in Connecticut will likely near 2 percent of the state’s population, or 75,000 people, before leveling off. The producers and DCP say opening more dispensaries is less likely to drive patient growth than adding to the list of 22 conditions that qualify a patient for the program. DCP is considering opiate withdrawal as a qualifying condition, which could increase the patient count significantly.

“Really, the issue is the number of patients that are registering,” Lipton said. “Whether there’s 20 dispensaries or 10 dispensaries, there’s a certain number of registered patients.”

The producers say they’re equipped to handle triple the current patient count. DCP agrees, for now.

“When we were selecting producers, we were cognizant of their capacity to expand,” Seagull said. “We’re continuing to monitor the situation. Right now, we’re comfortable that they have the capacity.”

The dispensaries say they’ve heard it before. “It hasn’t proven to be true,” said Al Domeika, a pharmacist at Prime Wellness. “Yeah, they’ve grown their facilities — but you know what else has grown? The patient base.”