As Virginia’s medical marijuana industry closes out its first year of sales, some patients are complaining about long waits to register with the state and high prices once they get into dispensaries.
“A month’s supply costs me between $600 and $700 — and that’s not covered by insurance,” says Tamara Netzel, a former schoolteacher from Virginia Beach who suffers from multiple sclerosis and has found cannabis far more effective than any other available pain treatment.
The state’s medical marijuana program is currently the only legal avenue to purchase marijuana in Virginia. The four medical processors currently licensed by the state began opening to patients last October.
But to shop at the medical dispensaries, patients must first get a doctor to write them a recommendation and then apply to the state for a medical marijuana card.
Finding a doctor is easy — dozens of practices have popped up offering to set up online visits with doctors willing to recommend the drug for all manner of ailments. Some even offer deals, promising to reimburse the $100 cost of an appointment if their practitioner declines to sign off on a marijuana card.
But Netzel, who runs a Facebook group for medical marijuana patients, lamented that the next step — getting the state to review an application and issue a medical marijuana card — can take more than a month.
“If a doctor can turn around a letter right away within 30 minutes, why does it take six weeks for the Virginia Board of Pharmacy to send a paper card?” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Board of Pharmacy, Diane Powers, said the board tries to process all applications within 30 business days and is in the process of adding staff to help with an influx of applications, which she said arrive at a rate of more than 1,000 a week.
And by early 2022, she said the board hopes to have a new online application portal in place it says will expedite the process. The board charges patients $50 a year in registration fees.
Patients aren’t the only ones frustrated by the delays. Processors have expressed disappointment at the still-narrow pool of patients who can purchase their products, a figure that as of Oct. 4 sits at just under 33,000.
“You can go to a doctor and get a prescription for an opioid and get it filled the same day, but we have patients waiting six, eight, 12 weeks to get a medical cannabis card,” said Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care, a multi-state operator that sells medical cannabis under its own name in Hampton Roads and recently purchased Richmond-based Green Leaf Medical, which holds the license to sell medical products in central Virginia.
As for the cost of products, Abebe said the small number of patients is one of the reasons costs are still high. With more patients, she said the companies “will have more efficient economies of scale.”
She said the state’s regulations have also contributed to higher costs. She specifically cited Virginia’s status as one of the only states that requires a pharmacist to oversee every aspect of production and sales. The state also requires a pharmacist be available to consult with patients on site.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws, noted the state’s decision to limit the program to five producers, who are only allowed to operate in the specific region of the state in which they are licensed.
“Even though it’s completely normal to see higher prices in the early days of retail sales, it’s these two factors — limited points of access coupled with a small patient population — that are leaving Virginians with a serious case of sticker shock,” Pedini said.
Netzel said that before her local dispensary opened for business last year, she made regular trips to Washington, D.C., where gray-market sales have been tolerated for years.
“I would say I was probably paying about half as much as I am now,” she said.
And she said it’s not lost on her that Columbia Care’s D.C.-based dispensary sells 3.5 grams of marijuana for $35, compared to the $65 price for the same amount the company charges patients in Virginia.
But she said that despite the cost, she has remained loyal to the state’s medical market because she wants to see it succeed so more patients will have access to a treatment she said has helped her in a way no traditional pharmaceuticals could.
At the same time, she is pursuing a new avenue to help lower her expenses: She decided to start growing her own now that it is legal.
“So that is, hopefully, going to help with the cost,” she said.