Massachusetts has seen a spike in medical marijuana registrations since adult-use stores closed, with 8,782 new patients receiving their medical card in April.
“I think we’ve all noticed the spike since recreational has shut down,” said Kathleen McKinnon, owner of Alternative Wellness Centers, which offers wellness services such as cannabis education and certifications, acupuncture and other therapies at locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut. “I’ve had to add more providers and more shifts on.”
And for Curaleaf Massachusetts President Patrik Jonsson, the spike is a bit of a silver lining for an industry whose growth has – with coronavirus – been nipped in the, dare we say, bud.
“I think it’s a good thing. I think you’ll see a slightly higher patient base than before,” Jonsson said. “Not that I like how it came about, but think it was a good boost to the medical side – the medical side needed a boost and I think this gave them that.”
Gov. Charlie Baker shuttered adult-use marijuana stores on March 24 as part of a closure of nonessential businesses due to coronavirus. But medical marijuana dispensaries were declared essential and allowed to remain open.
The number of medical marijuana registrations has since soared.
The Cannabis Control Commission received more than 1,300 new patient registrations between March 23 and April 1. In the 10 days before, it received 500 patient registrations. “That’s a significant jump in patient registration,” CCC Executive Director Shawn Collins said at CCC’s April meeting.
Then in April, the CCC recorded another 8,782 patients receiving their medical cards.
At the end of March, the CCC recorded 63,720 certified active patients. At the end of April, there were 72,502, a nearly 14% increase. Between July 2015 and March 2019 there had never been more than 3,050 new registrations in a month, according to the CCC.
“The spike is definitely attributable to recreational stores closing,” said McKinnon. “You hear that over and over. On the flip side, though they were purchasing it recreationally, they were using it for medical purposes … whether it is insomnia, anxiety or pain … they’ve just never taken that leap to meet with a doctor.”
Jonsson said – and others have previously said – that the increase in medical marijuana registrations hasn’t made up for the lack of recreational sales. At Curaleaf’s co-located medical and adult-use dispensary in Oxford, for instance, adult-use sales accounted for 80% of the business, Jonsson said.
The volume of medical sales are also down in the last month as fewer registers are open to encourage social distancing and patient flows are monitored, Jonsson said. But patients are buying larger amounts and generating higher ticket prices, Jonsson reported. He estimated that 50% of the patients are new medical marijuana patients.
The spike in medical registrations comes as the CCC has eased some of the requirements to ensure people have access to the drug.
For instance, the CCC has allowed clinicians to certify patients through telehealth in an effort to accommodate those seeking a medical marijuana card in an age of social distancing. As of April, the commission had approved 35 telehealth waivers for certified health care providers, according to CCC statistics.
Dr. Mario Addabbo – a physician with AWC, who said he has never been so busy and was seeing an average of 16 patients a day – said that telehealth has been a benefit for certifiers because it enables them to continue seeing patients.
“For this situation I think it’s terrific, I can still be in touch with the patients and everything,” Addabbo said. He also noted the patient fills out his or her own patient history and physical statistics (on a secure website, of course) before the consultation, saving him time.
And it’s not as if the process was particularly daunting anyways, according to McKinnon.
In fact, it seems relatively straightforward.
Before an appointment, patients are sent an email and given a log-in to a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant platform where it takes about 15 minutes to submit their medical information, McKinnon said. They then connect virtually for about 20 minutes with a provider. The provider can immediately certify the patient in the state system, and about 10 minutes later, the patient will receive a two-week temporary ID card in their email.
The patient also receives follow-up information with a list of dispensaries and discounts.
In fact, the longest part of the process may be the couple of days McKinnon said that it takes to get an appointment due to the increased interest.
The question is whether, or how fast, the spike will disappear once recreational sales resume in the future.
Medical marijuana sales generally decrease once a state legalizes adult-use, but medical patients have some benefits in Massachusetts. Medical marijuana is not taxed, patients can get marijuana delivered to their homes, and patients can buy products with higher THC levels than are allowed in the adult-use market. There is also more guarantee of product availability on the medical side.
“We might lose a few renewals next year,” Jonsson said. “But renewals are even easier than a first-timer.”
Of course, the ultimate factor affecting the duration of the spike may be how soon recreational shops will be allowed to reopen.
But Jonsson sees the spike as proof that can happen.
“Our industry has already been operating as medical marijuana providers, in a safe and responsible way since March 24 without any incident,” Jonsson said. “We have been proving in the last two months that we can operate safely … It would be business as usual just a different demographic.”
Material from State House News Service was used in this report.