More than 70 Michigan dispensaries operating under temporary licenses were forced to shut their doors at the beginning of 2019. In compliance with a set of bills passed in 2016, reforming the way the state regulates the production and sale of medical marijuana. The result was a shortage in medical marijuana, plaguing many areas in Michigan including much of Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is home to 20 dispensaries, only seven of which have official licenses. Kinesiology junior L.J. Horowitz, a member of Green Wolverine’s founding executive board, estimated Ann Arbor has one of the highest densities of official and total medical marijuana provisioning centers in the state. Green Wolverine is a student organization focusing on the cannabis industry.
“It’s great for students and great for people who live in Ann Arbor, but that’s by far the most besides Detroit in any city in Michigan,” Horowitz said.
When the shortage hit, Ann Arbor residents and business owners were disproportionately affected. Lisa Conine, community outreach coordinator at provisioning center Om of Medicine, described the scarcity as frustrating, saying patients were ridden with fear over what was to come.
“It’s just a simple issue of supply and demand,” Conine said. “There’s almost 300,000 patients in Michigan, and only a handful of growers and processors that have been licensed through the state. It’s just unfortunately not enough to supply to everyone.”
On Jan. 16, a unanimous vote from Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Licensing Board gave the unlicensed dispensaries permission to temporarily reopen until March 31. Horowitz recounted how hectic that day was in Ann Arbor.
“The first day dispensaries reopened, the dispensary I go to, which is the cheapest one in Ann Arbor, had an hour-and-a-half line,” Horowitz said.
For now, Michigan is operating under the same structure it has been for the past year. In February 2018, all businesses in the medical marijuana field — growing, packaging and distribution operations — were subject to license proposals. Slowly, the state began passing out licenses in preparation for January 2019, at which point no businesses still without a license would be permitted to operate.
However, Conine explained there was a common misconception that the 72 dispensaries shut down this January were operating in violation of the law when the majority of them are just pending approval of their licenses.
“It’s a little unfair that the timeline from the state that their pace of licensing businesses has been what it is,” Conine said. “It has made it for many to be still waiting for their license and then they impose a shutdown.”
The state’s marijuana shortage is not directly related to the recent passage of Proposal 1, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana for those aged 21 or older.
Additionally, provisioning centers that had been licensed prior to the deadline were still reliant upon growing and regulatory facilities that had not yet received their licenses. Not only were there fewer functioning storefronts, but those still open were floundering for supply.
Mike McLeod, owner and manager of the local dispensary Green Planet, explained there is no quick way to make up for such an extensive shortage, because cannabis plants take months to grow and process. Though Green Planet has a license and was able to stay open, McLeod said they did run out of inventory at one point.
While supplies were depleting, demand was on the rise, further exacerbating the shortfall. Daniel Kruger, adjunct faculty associate who researches psychology and community health, recently published a paper on the widespread influence of cannabis use in medical practice.
“For a lot of the times, people are sort of self-diagnosing, self-treating and then self-untreating,” Kruger said. “Meaning there’s a whole huge disconnect between the use of medical cannabis and the mainstream health care system.”
Kruger’s study found nearly half of all medical marijuana users self-medicate without the knowledge of their primary care provider. Oftentimes, patients will opt to use medical marijuana in replacement of other pharmaceutical drugs, which poses an issue when medical cannabis is in short supply.
“Cannabis doesn’t have any kind of physiological dependence like opioids or cocaine,” Kruger said. “It’s not addictive in the hard sense of like being something where your neurotransmitters are depleted and you crash, but people do believe that there’s a psychological dependence.”
Kruger also noted even in the absence of a psychological dependence, when patients with any affliction are not given their medicine, there are adverse effects. He and Conine believe the stigmatization of medical cannabis use should not prevent sick people from receiving their medicine.
“What if someone was caught in a snowstorm or something and can’t get their regular meds from a pharmacy?” Kruger said. “It’s a serious issue. I can imagine that the comedians might want to joke about this, but at the same time, it’s a serious issue, especially for people with chronic conditions.”
During the shortage, Horowitz said he saw the prices for marijuana increase dramatically. Because of this, Horowitz said many students who were in possession of medical cards and typically bought from dispensaries were forced to turn to what he called “street weed.”
“There was like a three-week period where no one really knew what to do,” Horowitz said.
Kruger believes the shortage and the desperation it caused are the results of a separation between public health and the recognition of medical cannabis as a legitimate medium of healing.
“Basically, this is a giant freight train headed down the tracks,” Kruger said. “Public health is standing on the tracks right now, basically stuck in their prohibition, and this train is just going to run them over unless people start taking cannabis, and especially medical cannabis, seriously and really broaden the scope of interest.”
Conine noted amid the shortage, it was even more difficult to bridge these gaps because the priority becomes survival rather than progression in the medical marijuana field.
“Definitely while all of this pressure is happening of shortages, it certainly puts a strain on everyone to want to get involved,” Conine said. “Because if you’re just worried about getting your medicine, you might not even have time or the resources to engage politically.”
Conine believes a proper instigation of medical licensing would provide a blueprint to the state as they begin the process of commercially licensing dispensaries. She said the process will prove difficult, seeing as some businesses have already found loopholes in the state’s temporary regulations on the practice of adult use.
“Hopefully if this gets working right, then it will be easier for the state to model the adult use program after the medical program,” Conine said. “It’s a rocky transition to start.”
Still, some local businesses do not want to get ahead of themselves. Both Om of Medicine and Green Planet said they are waiting to decide whether or not to pursue a commercial license. They said their decisions will hinge on the plausibility of the licensing plan rolled out by the state.
“I think most people in the industry are interested, just depending on how it’s done,” McLeod said. “More than likely, we will want to get involved.”
In the meantime, Horowitz said most of the industry is in limbo, waiting for more licenses to be awarded prior to the rapidly approaching deadline.
“For all we know, come March 31, the government can come out and say, ‘You know what, we’re only going to have the dispensaries that we’ve licensed and that’s going to be it. We’re going to have 75 licenses and if you want a license, you’re going to have to buy a license from somebody,’” Horowitz said. “Do we think that’s going to happen? No. But that could happen. Right now it’s just kind of a wait-and-see game.”
McLeod said he has faith in the state to take care of the situation prior to their deadline or else extend it.
“It’s like anything new,” McLeod said. “You expect there to be some bumps in the road. I think they’re taking the right course, to put the patient’s needs above anything else.”
Conine emphasized the importance of keeping in mind people’s health and safety.
“As we get through this process, whether people like how it’s playing out or not, as long as patients are able to get the medicine that they’re able to get, then we can push through this time and make it better,” Conine said.