In need of weed

Shortages hit before rec sales start

As the state prepares for legal recreational marijuana sales come Jan. 1, some patients who use pot for medical reasons say that the price has skyrocketed and there's a shortage.

During a recent visit to HCI Alternatives, the only marijuana dispensary within Springfield city limits, a dozen patients stood outside a few minutes before the opening time of 10 a.m. Most didn't want their names used. They said they arrived early because there's been a shortage. They also said that they're paying as much as $70 for 3 1/2 grams, an eighth of an ounce, which is more than a few months ago and more than pot costs in other states where marijuana is legal.

Several patients said they were after G6, a strain that's a hybrid of sativa, a variety of pot that's said to energize the user, and indica, a more relaxing form. "G6 is often called the cocaine of marijuana, and after one taste, you'll certainly see why," writes a reviewer on allbud.com, a website that publishes information about marijuana strains and also helps customers find dispensaries.

On Monday, seven legislators who supported legalization of recreational pot issued a written statement acknowledging patient concerns about shortages and high prices. The legislators said they've been in touch with Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration and believe that the governor shares concerns.

Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, said that while she didn't anticipate shortages to hit so soon, short supplies should be expected with the advent of legal recreational sales, in part because relatively few dispensaries and cultivation sites are allowed in the early days under the new law. No new retail operators will be permitted until next spring, and the first permits for new cultivators are expected next summer. The idea, Steans said, is for existing pot businesses to provide money for new entrants who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to get loans and other help that will allow them to enter the legal marijuana trade. She said she's also heard that patients are hoarding pot for fear of running out once recreational sales begin.

"We've done this very intentionally: It's a slow-growth strategy," said Steans, one of the legislators who signed the statement issued Monday. "It's going to be awhile until we have enough. ... I think medical patients are concerned."

The number of medical marijuana cards has exploded since last summer, when the state expanded the list of medical conditions that qualify a person to receive a card, which costs $100. Five years ago, fewer than 3,000 state residents had medical marijuana cards. Today, the number is nearing 100,000, and the increase in patients might help explain shortages.

When legal recreational sales start, the law says that sellers who offer both medical marijuana and recreational pot must prioritize so that patients won't run out. Chris Stone, a senior adviser to Ascend Illinois, which runs a medical dispensary downtown and is planning a recreational shop on the east side, said the law requires outlets that sell both medical and recreational pot to keep records and, based on those records, maintain a 30-day supply for patients. But Stone says he knows of no prohibition on sellers charging either patients or stoners whatever the market will bear.

Stone acknowledges rising prices. "The price has gone up because of the demand," Stone says. "It's simple Economics 101."

Some strains and products are in shorter supply than others, Stone said. Marijuana buds account for 45 percent of Ascend sales, he said, and the remainder are edibles and concentrates, usually vaped, that can be 90 percent pure THC, marijuana's active ingredient.

Larry O'Hern, owner of Nature's Grace and Wellness, a cultivation company 75 miles northwest of Springfield, said he's behind on an expansion undertaken to grow more weed to supply the recreational market. He said no one anticipated that so many people would get medical marijuana cards, which will exempt them from paying state taxes as high as 25 percent at the retail level. "I don't think anyone anticipated it coming this fast," O'Hern said.

O'Hern says he believes health concerns over vaping, which have been blamed for deaths across the nation, including several in Illinois, have pushed patients to buds as opposed to concentrates. "We're sitting on 2,800 pounds of flower to turn into oil," O'Hern said. It takes as much as eight ounces of raw marijuana buds, also called flower, to create one ounce of concentrate.

Like Stone, O'Hern said the shortage hasn't affected all products. As improbable as it might sound for someone who grows pot, O'Hern said his wife, who is a licensed caregiver who purchases cannabis for relatives who are patients, recently visited a dispensary in the Quincy area and had no difficulty buying marijuana. Growers, he said, have focused on growing top-shelf buds that smell just right and look just right in addition to having psychoactive qualities, and if aesthetics aren't up to snuff, weed is turned into concentrates. "We have, de facto, created marijuana snobs, the way this market started," he said.

Shortages and high prices aren't unusual in early days of legalization. In Colorado, Thomas Mitchell, cannabis editor for Westword, a Denver newspaper, said prices were as high as $70 per eighth when recreational weed was legalized in 2014. Now, he said, Denver prices range from $20 to $45 per eighth. "Marijuana is a commodity, prices fluctuate with demand," Mitchell says. And it's not unusual for patients to covet specific strains. "They find one that works for them," he says. "They take it very seriously, what it can do for me and how it helps medically."

Contact Bruce Rushton at

brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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