One year after legal sales began, medical marijuana patients see high prices and long waits

As the medical marijuana industry in Virginia ends its first year of sale, some patients complain about long waits to register with the state and high prices once they enter dispensaries .

“A one-month supply costs me between $ 600 and $ 700 – and it’s not covered by insurance,” says Tamara Netzel, a former teacher from Virginia Beach who suffers from multiple sclerosis and found the cannabis much more effective than any other pain treatment available.

The state’s medical marijuana program is currently the only legal way to buy marijuana in Virginia. The four currently state-licensed medical processors began opening up to patients last October.

But to shop at medical dispensaries, patients must first have a doctor write a referral for them, and then apply to the state for a medical marijuana card.

Finding a doctor is easy – dozens of practices have sprung up offering online visits with doctors willing to recommend the drug for all kinds of illnesses. Some even run offers, promising to reimburse the cost of a $ 100 appointment if their practitioner refuses to sign 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 – may take longer. ‘a month.

“If a doctor can return a letter immediately within 30 minutes, why does it take the Virginia Board of Pharmacy six weeks to send a paper card?” ” she said.

Board of Pharmacy spokeswoman Diane Powers said the board tries to process all requests within 30 business days and is adding staff to help with an influx of requests, which she says arrive at a rate of over 1000. a week.

And in early 2022, she said the board hopes to have a new online application portal that they believe will speed up the process. The board charges patients $ 50 per year in registration fees.

Patients aren’t the only ones frustrated by the delays. Processors have expressed disappointment at the still small number of patients who can purchase their products, a figure that, as of Oct. 4, stood 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 who are waiting six, eight, 12 weeks to get a medical cannabis card,” said Ngiste Abebe, vice -president of public policies. 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.

Regarding the cost of the products, Abebe said the small number of patients is one of the reasons the costs are still high. With more patients, she said, businesses “will have more efficient economies of scale.”

She said state regulations have also contributed to the rising costs. She specifically cited Virginia’s status as one of the only states that requires a pharmacist to oversee all aspects of production and sales. The state also requires that a pharmacist be available to consult patients on site.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform, noted the state’s decision to limit the program to five growers, who are only allowed to operate only in the specific region of the state in which they are licensed.

“While it’s only normal to see higher prices early on in retail sales, it is these two factors – limited access points associated with a small patient population – that leave Virginians with a case. serious sticker shock, ”Pedini said.

Netzel said that before her local dispensary opened last year, she traveled regularly to the District of Columbia, where gray market sales have been tolerated for years.

“I would say I was probably paying about half of what I’m paying now,” she said.

And she said she kept in mind that Columbia Care’s DC-based dispensary sells 3.5 grams of marijuana for $ 35, compared to the price of $ 65 for the same amount the company charges patients in. Virginia.

But she said despite the cost, she has remained loyal to the state’s medical market because she wants to see it succeed so more patients have access to treatment that she says has helped her in a big way. way that no traditional pharmaceutical product could.

At the same time, she’s pursuing a new path to help cut expenses: she’s decided to start growing her own now that it’s legal.

“So it is hopefully helping to cover the costs,” she said.

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