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, 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.
“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.”
“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.”
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 revenues, 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. Nicknamed “The Hippies’ Disappointment,” 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 ne 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 grown from seven employees to 45.
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.
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.