PORTLAND, Ore. – When states legalize pot for all adults, long-standing medical marijuana programs take a big hit, in some cases losing more than half their registered patients in just a few years, according to a data analysis by The Associated Press.
Much of the decline comes from consumers who, ill or not, got medical cards in their states because it was the only way to buy marijuana legally and then discarded them when broader legalization arrived. But for people who truly rely on marijuana to control ailments such as nausea or cancer pain, the arrival of so-called recreational cannabis can mean fewer and more expensive options.
Robin Beverett, a 47-year-old disabled Army veteran, said she resumed taking a powerful prescription mood stabilizer to control her anxiety and PTSD when the cost of her medical marijuana nearly tripled after California began general sales. Before last year, an eighth of an ounce of dry marijuana flower cost her $35. Now it’s approaching $100, Beverett said.
“It’s ridiculous. The prices are astronomical,” said Beverett, who moved to Sacramento from Texas because medical marijuana is illegal there. “Going to the dispensary is just out of the question if you’re on any kind of fixed income.”
It’s a paradox playing out nationwide as more states take the leap from care-centered medical programs to recreational models aligned with a multibillion-dollar global industry.
States see a “massive exodus” of medical patients when they legalize marijuana for all adults – and then, in many cases, the remaining ones struggle, said David Mangone, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access.
“Some of the products that these patients have relied on for consistency – and have used over and over for years – are disappearing off the shelves to market products that have a wider appeal,” he said.
Cost also rises, a problem that’s compounded because many of those who stay in medical programs are low-income and rely on Social Security disability, he said.
In Oregon, where the medical program shrank the most following recreational legalization, nearly two-thirds of patients gave up their medical cards, the AP found. As patients exited, the market followed: The number of medical-only retail shops fell from 400 to two, and hundreds of growers who contracted with individual patients to grow specific strains walked away.
Now, some of the roughly 28,000 medical patients left are struggling to find affordable medical marijuana products they’ve relied on for years.
Ten states have both medical and recreational markets. Four of them – Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska – have the combination of an established recreational marketplace and data on medical patients. The AP analysis found all four saw a drop in medical patients after broader legalization.
In Alaska, the state with the second-biggest decline, medical cardholders dropped by 63% after recreational sales began in 2016, followed by Nevada with nearly 40% since 2017 and Colorado with 19% since 2014.
There is limited scientific data backing many of the health claims made by medical marijuana advocates, and the U.S. government still classifies cannabis in any form as a controlled substance like LSD and cocaine.