Can marijuana supply meet medical and recreational demand?

Medical marijuana patients are having a hard time finding certain cannabis products at some of the 55 dispensaries across the state, and they fear shortages could worsen when recreational use begins Jan. 1.

Dispensaries and the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois say the shortages are temporary, as growers ramp up production for adult-use sales and adjust to an increase in medical patients seen this year because of an expansion in qualifying conditions.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's office says the administration is "working to ensure supply is protected for patients who rely on it" and will monitor inventory for compliance with state law.

But patients accustomed to using a certain strain of product to treat painful conditions say they're having to drive long distances to get the medication they need.

"Trial and error is a big part of the medical patient's initial medical routine, and once they find something that works, they tend to stick to it," said Kelvin McCabe, a board member with Illinois NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "So this erratic supply issue is a major frustration and problem for many patients."

Among them is Jim Champion, who has multiple sclerosis. His wife, Sandy Champion, typically bought cannabis flower - the green, leafy product most people associate with marijuana - for Jim at 3C Compassionate Care Center in Naperville. The store is a 30- to 40-minute drive from their house in Somonauk.

But about a month ago, when the dispensary didn't have enough of the flower he uses, Sandy Champion said she had to file a form with the state and switch to New Age Care in Mount Prospect. New Age has had enough stock, but it's 90 minutes away.

Dottie Malan of Lemont has seen a similar shortage since early December at Verilife in Romeoville, the dispensary where she regularly buys medication for her fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.

"I've been using less cannabis because there really is not that many choices," Malan said. "In other words, I've been laying around more and missing Christmas events because I am too painful and exhausted."

Advocates fear patients in situations such as these could begin to buy again from the underground market.

"We don't fault them for that," McCabe said. "We just wish the legal market would do a better job of making that choice to go back to the streets unnecessary."

Growing demand

The legal market for medical marijuana has grown its patient pool from 49,366 at the end of November 2018 to 93,373 at the end of November this year.

In January, the state created an opioid alternative program, allowing people to become medical marijuana patients instead of opioid pain medication users. And in July, it expanded the list of qualifying conditions by 11 to reach 52 - including a common one that many patients had been waiting for, chronic pain.

In the meantime, the state approved the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which will allow people 21 and older to possess up to 30 grams of marijuana flower for personal use beginning Jan. 1. Jeremy Unrhu, a spokesman for the Verilife chain of dispensaries run by Pharmacannis, said the industry estimates 750,000 people could be interested in buying once adult use begins.

"So it's not surprising that there are inconsistencies in the marketplace as cultivators are disrupting their production cycles to expand their facilities, and dispensaries are working to stock up on products in anticipation of the first few weeks of adult use," Unruh said.

Shortages in some flower products have been occurring in part because of purchasing requirements placed on dispensaries, he said.

"Most of the wholesalers from whom we purchase products have limited flower offerings and are capping what we can purchase or making us purchase a majority of their product line to qualify for flower in some instances," Unruh said. "On the other hand, extracted or infused products, such as vapes, concentrates like waxes and shatter, capsules, tinctures, edibles and other forms of cannabis are readily available."

That's puzzling to patients like Malan, some of whom choose to buy flower products because they are cheaper.

"It is strange because before you can make any other types of product such as edibles or concentrates - which cost more - you need flower," Malan said.

Shortages aren't happening everywhere, NORML's McCabe said, as some stores remain well-stocked.

But where products are sparse, Sandy Champion said, "it's unacceptable."

Recreational delay?

Roughly two weeks before adult use is set to start, Gov. Pritzker's administration has not announced plans to slow down the advent of cannabis sales to recreational users.

The administration, through the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and the Department of Agriculture, plans to monitor inventory to determine whether cultivators and dispensaries are meeting legal obligations to provide an "adequate supply" for patients based on past demand.

The departments also are monitoring complaints about medical cannabis shortages and "bad actors who violate the law will face consequences," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.

But some patients are calling for a delay to help ensure there will be enough supply.

"I'd like to see the state roll back recreational until there's an adequate amount of time to grow and supply everyone," Champion said.

That's not the case yet, say dispensary employees such as patient care specialist Robert Ungaro at EarthMed in Addison. Ungaro said there aren't enough growers to produce what stores are able to sell now, let alone enough to supply the expected influx of recreational users.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture last week licensed two more growers, bringing the total allowed to cultivate marijuana in the state to 16.

And licensed growers say they are working quickly to fill any shortages, which industry leaders say will be short-lived.

"It is not a permanent situation with regard to the limited access to products," said Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois. "That will be corrected rapidly."

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Medical marijuana patients are having a hard time finding certain cannabis products at some of the 55 dispensaries across Illinois, and they fear shortages could worsen when recreational use begins Jan. 1.
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