R.I. demand for medical marijuana skyrocketing

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While state lawmakers consider legalizing recreational pot this year, sales of medical marijuana continue to hit new highs.

The reason isn’t just that more people are ailing, state regulators say.

The state’s three medical marijuana dispensaries are on pace to sell about $56 million worth of medicinal pot in fiscal 2019, said Norman Birenbaum, the state’s top marijuana regulator. That’s $17.8 million, or 46.6 percent, more than in fiscal year 2018.

And that year itself was record-breaking, with $38.2 million worth of pot sold, a third more than in fiscal 2017.

The list of qualifying conditions to enter the medical marijuana program is fairly short but also broad, like severe pain or muscle spasms. And some doctors, particularly a few over the border in Seekonk, have been willing to write medicinal pot recommendations for a large segment of Rhode Island’s 18,200 registered patients with few questions asked, Birenbaum said.

It’s “pay to play right over the state line,” he said. “We recognize there are ways for people to abuse the program.”

Last year, Gov. Gina Raimondo’s attempt to restrict certain doctors from participating in the program failed. This year’s bill to legalize recreational marijuana includes another attempt: allowing the Department of Health to require that medical records be included with doctors’ recommendations for medicinal marijuana.

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The increase in medical marijuana sales also translates into more money in the state’s coffers.

During the last fiscal year, the state collected about $2.75 million in various taxes. This year, regulators predict they will collect nearly twice that — $5.4 million.

Raimondo’s legalization proposal also includes plans to triple, to nine, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to meet the growing demand in a state that reportedly leads the nation in per-capita marijuana consumption.

The proposal would create six additional retail-only stores. None would grow pot or manufacture any marijuana products, although three would be second locations for each of the state’s three dispensaries, which all grow cannabis now.

The other three additional stores would have different owners.

All nine dispensaries also could apply for licenses to sell recreational marijuana at a later date if the General Assembly approves recreational use this session.

Attempts to increase the number of medical marijuana dispensaries isn’t new. State medical marijuana regulators have unsuccessfully pushed for additional stores for the past several years to provide better access, product variety and more competitive pricing for the state’s patients.

“We do not have enough distribution or patient access right now,” Birenbaum said, noting that the current three dispensaries were created in 2009 when Rhode Island had fewer than 2,000 patients in the program.

Last year, Raimondo proposed increasing the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 15.

But the dispensaries — the Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center, in Providence; Greenleaf Compassion Center, in Portsmouth; and the Summit Medical Compassion Center, in Warwick — questioned the need for so much expansion and told lawmakers their businesses would suffer from the additional competition. The proposal failed.

Regulators have said they would like to see dispensaries, or compassion centers as they are often called, in regions where none exist now: South County, East Bay and in northern communities like Woonsocket, as well as perhaps a second location in Greater Providence.

On some days now, business at the Slater dispensary on Corliss Street, in Providence, is so brisk that patients can wait up to 25 minutes to make a transaction at one of 17 check-out stations.

“People do not live close enough to these three centers,” Birenbaum said, “and there’s not enough competition in terms of pricing and offerings. So, when you look at the state’s need, it’s just not being met by the three existing compassion centers.”

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