Medical marijuana has been on the shelves of Connecticut dispensaries for just over 10 weeks, and already some patients who have tried it say they'll be returning to the black market.
According to the Department of Consumer Protection, which has oversight over the state's medical marijuana program, nearly 2,800 patients have qualified to obtain marijuana from one of six dispensaries around the state.
The Troubleshooters have heard from several patients who say the program isn't what they expected.
"The patient just doesn't feel like they're getting what they pay for," said a patient who asked only to be identified as Britney.
She's used medical marijuana for several years and said she was looking forward to the launch of the program that makes it legal for patients like her to purchase marijuana.
But when she discovered how much the medicine cost, Britney said she and others were shocked.
We asked her if the sticker price would drive her back to the black market.
"Absolutely. I can't afford it," said Britney.
We checked with dispensaries around the state and found that the going rate for an ounce of marijuana has a low of around $500 and a high of nearly $600.
Patients told us it's considerably cheaper on the street. The Web site thepriceofweed.com is a crowdsourcing site where people post what they pay on the black market and an average cost is calculated. According to the site, an ounce of high grade marijuana costs about $340 for an ounce, considerably less than what dispensaries are charging.
"We don’t think it’s correct to compare the product that’s in our dispensaries with any product that’s on the street,“ said William Rubenstein, Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection.
DCP helped craft the rules that govern the state's medical marijuana program, which are considered by many to be the toughest in the nation.
The program was constructed according to a strictly pharmaceutical model. Rubenstein acknowledges that these regulations may add to the cost of producing the marijuana, but in return, he argues patients get the safest medicine possible.
“I don’t think when you’re talking about taking a plant that has medicinal qualities, and turning it into medicine that patients can use in a way that they can count on and find reliable and actually helps them, I don’t think as with any pharmaceutical drug, that we can have too much rigor in assuring the quality of that product," said Rubenstein.
The head of one of the state's four licensed growers says all the regulations make a safe product that should carry a premium.
“That higher cost ultimately makes the community safer, it ultimately makes the program work, it ultimately makes the patients have access to a medicine that they can really trust,” said Ethan Ruby, CEO of Theraplant.
Ruby, who worked in the medical marijuana industry in Colorado, says Connecticut's rules are far tougher, from quality control to security to mandatory testing. He says the regulations do drive up costs, but they ensure the best medication for patients.
"I think the industry is in its infancy," said Ruby. "I think it will take some time for prices to normalize out. I think that people are willing to pay a premium for healthier products.”
Part of the problem may have been a lack of product from the outset. Until this week, Theraplant was the only producer supplying dispensaries with marijuana.
A second producer is now delivering, with the other two expected to have product in dispensaries by January.
Prime Wellness of CT in South Windsor, one of the state's six dispensaries, is expecting that more options in the marketplace will drive down prices.
“Like anything else, it creates competition," said Thomas Nicholas, CEO of Prime Wellness of CT. "There will be more, not only more product available, but different varieties of product available.”
Even if prices fall, some patients say quality will still be an issue.
“I know for a fact that my street-quality marijuana is considerably, considerably better," said Britney.
Connecticut's regulations mandate that smokeable marijuana be sold in what's called a homogenized form – the buds are ground up. Regulators say it's the best way to test for potency, quality and safety. It's a departure from other states, where medical marijuana is available in bud form.
“You’re obviously looking for certain characteristics," said Britney. "You want to see if the crystals, formations on the buds look like it’s of quality; you want to see what the smell is. That usually helps you determine the potency.”
Some patients are concerned the homogenization process degrades the marijuana and deprives them of what they consider the standard for determining what they're getting. Regulators say homogenization is the only way to properly test the marijuana to be sure of what's being sold.
“Historically, the way marijuana users have judged the quality of a product was to look at the bud, smell the bud, feel it," said Rubenstein. "Those are all proxies for trying to figure out what’s in it. We have a system that tells you exactly what’s in it.”
Regulators and producers point out the program is in its infancy and will have growing pains, but maintain caution is the safest approach for patients. Ruby believes Connecticut's approach is more workable than what he's seen in other states.
“Operating in this environment has never been done before, and until there’s been a year of operation under these strict guidelines, that story has not even been half told," said Ruby.
But between price and perceived quality, patients like Britney say they're choosing to turn away from the legal avenue and go back to the black market.
“Instead of being a law abiding citizen, I’m forced to be a criminal again, which is why I got my card in the first place – to not be a criminal,” said Britney.