Even as the nation’s capital enters an uncertain new age of legal marijuana, the 2,500 District residents permitted to buy medical cannabis are facing a blunt truth of their own: There isn’t enough pot to go around.
For months, many of the marijuana-using patients registered with the D.C. Department of Health have been frustrated by a chronic shortage in the system’s very limited supply chain. Since last summer, when the city council relaxed the rules for obtaining a doctor’s prescription for cannabis, the number of medical users has soared past the ability of the city’s three official growers to meet it.
Operators of Washington’s three medical marijuana dispensaries have struggled to meet the rising demand, frequently limiting the amount patients can purchase and occasionally turning them away.
On Wednesday, “we opened without any product to sell or without a delivery expected that day,” said Vanessa West, manager of the Metropolitan Wellness Center in Southeast Washington. “It was a total bummer. We closed early.”
West has heard from some impatient patients that the shortage has pushed them back to the pot dealers they relied on before the District launched its tightly regulated medical marijuana network in 2013.
Belinda Cunningham said she depends on the prescription she obtained last year to face life with HIV and Stage 2 cervical cancer. The 63-year-old grandmother was down to 129 pounds, taking more than 25 pills a day and suffering incessant vomiting. Cannabis, which she now smokes and vapes before every meal, settled the nausea and restored her appetite and her weight.
“I just started feeling better right away,” she said.
But until growers can ramp up production, she can’t always get what she needs.
“Last week I went to the clinic, and they didn’t have anything, not even sticks,” Cunningham said. “I’m really struggling right now. I know people are going back to the street, but I don’t want to do that if I don’t have to. You don’t know what’s in it.”
The shortage has gone largely unnoticed amid the drama leading up to Thursday’s legalization of recreational marijuana in D.C.
(Although, the medical cannabis dispensaries have been besieged by calls from recreational users mistakenly hoping they could score some of the legal pot. “We have to tell them that, no, they cannot swing by,” West said. The law wouldn’t allow that, even if dispensaries had the pot to spare.)
The scarcity is a big change from the early days of the medical marijuana program, when dispensaries catered to so few registered patients that some ran out of room to display all the Blue Dream, Master Kush and Lemon Skunk they had on hand. At the time, residents could get a prescription for only a short list of approved conditions, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and spasms.
Patients then had to apply to the Department of Health for a card that allowed them to enter one of the dispensaries and buy marijuana. There were fewer than 800 patients in the system last summer when the council, responding to pleas from dispensary operators and patient advocates, scrapped the list of conditions. Patients must still register, but since August, physicians have been allowed to prescribe cannabis for whatever they want.
“We decided to open it up for the doctor to make the decisions,” said D.C. Councilwoman Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), who sponsored the bill.
Anticipating a surge in demand, the council also lifted some of the restrictions on cultivators, increasing the number of plants each grower can raise from 95 to 500. But as the number of patients has more than tripled in the last seven months, the supply continues to lag.
It takes up to 23 weeks to bring a pot plant from cutting to harvest-ready bud, according to Corey Barnette, a marijuana cultivator who owns District Growers. His company moved to add new seedlings as soon as the law allowed, hiring four new workers, upgrading its old printing plant in Northeast with dozens of additional LED lights and heavier climate-control systems.
“We are just, literally this week, starting to harvest some of the new plants,” said Barnette, who predicted that the supply backlog would begin to shrink in coming months. “It’s about to pick up substantially.”
The law allows for up to 10 growers to operate in the network, and all 10 licenses have been awarded to companies that had to apply and pass extensive background check. Only three grow houses have begun to supply marijuana to the dispensaries, but as demand has grown interest may be stirring.
Two additional license-holders, Abatin and Alternative Solutions, both in Northeast Washington, are now listed as operational on the Department of Heath Web site, although neither has sold cannabis yet, according to dispensary officials. A participant in the Abatin group declined to be interviewed for this story.
The highly regulated medical marijuana market in D.C., where three approved growers have supplied three approved clinics, is a far cry from the freewheeling system in other states. West, who came to the District after managing medical cannabis dispensaries in California, said there were so many suppliers in the state that much of her day would be spent evaluating and selecting from among their wares.
“It was sniff and touch all day long,” West recalled. “I’d actually have to take an antihistamine before I’d start my day.”