There’s an unexpected side effect to Colorado’s billion-dollar recreational weed industry: It’s no longer very profitable to sell medical marijuana. Other states have similarly seen their medical markets shrink after legalizing recreational weed. Where does that leave medical marijuana patients like 11-year-old Vincent, who uses it to treat seizures and severe autism?
- When weed is legal for all, medical pot takes a hit
- Can medical marijuana programs survive in states with recreational markets?
Ann Marie Awad: From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something.
Michelle: All right. Do you want to introduce yourself? Can you shake his hand? What is your name?
Vincent: I need to see itself. I knew in a way …
Michelle: Tell him your name.
Vincent: His name Funky. I know …
Michelle: Funky is his nickname and he likes to [crosstalk 00:00:37].
Vincent: Do anyway.
Michelle: Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry.
Vincent: I guess [inaudible 00:00:00:40].
Ann Marie Awad: This is 11-year-old Vincent with his mom, Michelle. Ben Markus, what else can you tell us about them?
Ben Markus: So I meet Vincent. He’s sitting on this huge couch in his living room, kind of curled up a little bit. He’s got shaggy hair, a T-shirt and shorts on, and then he shows me this teddy bear.
Michelle: What’s his name, Vincent?
Vincent: The fast teddy bear.
Michelle: Do you like him?
Vincent: My name for Flash Teddy Bear. I guess that’s …
Ben Markus: You showed some shock there.
Michelle: Yeah, that’s a really big deal. I’m going to cry, actually. He just pretended with you.
Ann Marie Awad: Ben, why is this a big deal? He’s 11. Don’t all 11-year-olds pretend?
Ben Markus: Yeah. But see the difference here, though, is that Vincent is severely autistic and he doesn’t really speak much. And so to his mom, this is this huge step forward.
Michelle: He was pretending that the Teddy bear was talking and at the end he said, “Hi, my name is Flash Teddy Bear.” And so he had his teddy bear over here at the microphone talking and like that’s never happened, guys. So that’s a really big deal.
Ben Markus: Because of Vincent’s autism, he struggles to form words. Though he is getting better at that. He also has epilepsy. So for much of his childhood he’s had to struggle with multiple seizures a day.
Ann Marie Awad: Oh, wow.
Ben Markus: And that’s why Vincent is a medical marijuana patient. He uses it to treat his seizures. Michelle also claims, though, that it’s helping with the autism.
Michelle: Hey buddy, can we do medicine?
Ben Markus: So a few times a day Michelle fills this syringe with cannabis oil and she squirts it into Vincent’s mouth.
Michelle: Thank you. That’s it.
Vincent: You called.
Michelle: I told you it’s super anti-climactic. We give him his medicine and that’s it. And he takes it. He knows that he needs it or when he doesn’t need it. Like earlier I asked you, “Hey, do you need your medicine Vincent?” And he says, “No.” Or if he’s having a really rough day and he does need it, like I’ve asked him before, “V, do you need your medicine?” He’s like, behaviors like just yelling, getting up and yelling, “I need my medicine.” And I’m like, “Okay, dude.” So I give him his medicine and he’s cool.
Ann Marie Awad: Michelle and Vincent, they live here in Colorado. So she can take Vincent’s prescription and his med card to any dispensary and get his medicine, right? Well not any dispensary. Medical marijuana dispensaries are starting to disappear in Colorado. With help from my colleague, Ben, we’re going to dig into why this matters.
Ben Markus: So medical marijuana actually is different from recreational marijuana in some important ways. First of all, it’s more potent. Especially when it comes to edibles and oils. And medical marijuana is cheaper. It’s taxed at a completely different rate. So for people who are on the medical side who are using lots of it, that makes a big difference. But most importantly, Vincent’s a minor. And this is the only way that he can legally consume weed.
Ann Marie Awad: These products and the stores that are allowed to carry them are vanishing due to the growing popularity of recreational weed. In Denver, medical store licenses have fallen more than 30% since recreational sales began in 2014.
Ben Markus: And this is playing out in states across the country that have legalized both recreational and medicinal marijuana. From Oregon to Washington to Alaska, the number of people who are enrolled in medical marijuana programs is shrinking, and fast.
Ann Marie Awad: So on today’s episode, is medical marijuana on the way out? And if so, what does the future hold for a kid like Vincent ? This is On Something, stories about life after legalization. I’m Ann Marie Awad. On this show, we talk about people’s relationships with weed. And today, how states that have recreational marijuana may not be looking after their medical marijuana patients.
Ann Marie Awad: To tell this story, let me formally introduce Ben Markus. He’s our reporter here at Colorado Public Radio and he’s covered the cannabis industry for years. Not just the business side of things, either.
Ben Markus: Right. I was put on the beat after recreational marijuana passed in Colorado in 2012. The day after, the editors were like, “Whoa, this thing passed. We need a reporter who’s going to cover this thing for the next few years.” So that was me.
Ann Marie Awad: Yes. Until I came along.
Ben Markus: Until you came along, thank goodness because I was done with it.
Ann Marie Awad: You were buried under weed.
Ben Markus: It was really the only beat I’ve ever covered where I smelled like it afterwards.
Ann Marie Awad: So Ben, you and I have been covering marijuana in Colorado for a while. And I think it’s easy for us to forget how controversial a story like Vincent’s can be. I mean, here’s a kid who uses marijuana daily. It’s not uncommon to see kids as the face of medical marijuana these days. But there are only like 350 kids, give or take, in Colorado on the medical marijuana registry. It doesn’t sound like a lot.
Ben Markus: It’s not a lot of people. But after legalization passed in Colorado for recreational cannabis in 2012, Colorado was in headlines in newspapers all across the world. And people who had kids who were really sick saw maybe I can get my medicine there, too. Like Colorado is this open place. This phenomenon developed called marijuana refugees. People traveling from all over the country to try to see if they could find a drug that could possibly help their kids. People like Michelle, who used to live in Texas.
Ben Markus: Take me back to the very beginning. What was, what was pregnancy and birth like? Everything seemed perfectly normal?
Michelle: He was pretty typical at the beginning. A little colicky, had some restlessness, but overall he was pretty healthy.
Ben Markus: When did you first notice that something wasn’t quite right?
Michelle: It’s hard because when I look back at pictures, I can tell. But when I was in the throes of it, I noticed around 14 to 16 months is when I noticed that he didn’t speak at all. He couldn’t even direct like if he was hungry or if he was thirsty, all he could do was cry. And so I told his doctor, I was like, “What’s going on?” Doctor said, “Nah, it’s normal. He’s a boy. He’ll talk when he’s two.” And I’m like, “You don’t understand.”
Michelle: And so a couple months passed, I go back and like, “He still doesn’t talk.” And he said, “Fine.” He placated me and sent me to a speech therapist. And we met with this therapist and about 30 minutes into the evaluation she stops and she’s like, “I want you to know that I think your son could have autism. I can’t diagnose him as such, but that’s what it looks like.” And I’m just like brick wall. I mean it was not even in my realm of possibilities. I never even thought about it.
Ann Marie Awad: So Vincent spent his early years in south Texas where he was born?
Ben Markus: That’s right. And so shortly after this visit with the speech therapist, Vincent gets a formal diagnosis from a doctor who says that he has autism. Now, Michelle is determined to keep Vincent at home. Bear in mind that she’s a single mom. She’s doing this on her own. And Vincent doesn’t just have autism. He has all these other things. He’s got OCD, he’s got ADHD, he’s got sensory processing disorder. These are conditions that coexist with autism but it doesn’t make it any easier. She’s experimenting with different diets and medicines. And so let’s fast forward a little bit. He’s 5 years old now. He still can’t talk, but he’s actually stable enough, she says, to go to school.
Michelle: So I get a call from school one day and they say something’s going on with Vincent. He was shaking. I said, “Oh my God, he’s having a seizure.” They said, “Well you need to take him to the hospital.” And he was upright and he was able to … He was cognizant, but he had clearly had a physical manifestation of a seizure.
Ben Markus: So at the hospital, the doctors discover something disturbing. This wasn’t Vincent’s first seizure. And there’s no way to tell actually how long this has been going on.
Michelle: He was seizing about every 10 seconds. And we had no idea. He had something called absence seizures. And so it would look like he was just ignoring you or just doing his own thing.
Ann Marie Awad: That is incredible. I mean to discover that your kid has been having seizures right in front of you and you have no way of knowing.
Ben Markus: Yeah, they just couldn’t see it. But now they can. And now it’s a crisis on top of all the other things they have to deal with. Now epilepsy is different from some of the other things he’s dealing with because this is life threatening now. Seizures can lead to brain damage, they can lead to injuries. And so Michelle and her doctors are now adding different medicines to Vincent’s regime. And there’s this one, it’s an anticonvulsant called Keppra.
Michelle: One of the side effects of Keppra is something affectionately known as Kep Rage. Aggression, uncontrollable aggression. And that’s what happened. He became severely aggressive. And his seizures weren’t still completely controlled.
Ann Marie Awad: Ben, I’m curious, because you have a kid, you were there when Michelle gave a dose to Vincent. I mean what was going through your mind when you saw that?
Ben Markus: So when I started this project, I thought, I have a 5 year old daughter and I talked to these doctors and I thought there is no way that I would give marijuana to my daughter if she was sick because the doctors are saying, “Look, we haven’t really tested this. We don’t know what the side effects are. We don’t know what the dosing is.” But when you meet people like Michelle and Vincent and they’re in a desperate situation, and this is a kid who is very ill, and you realize as a parent that you’ll do anything to help your child. And if it’s cannabis, then let’s try it and see what happens.
Ben Markus: So it’s around this time that Michelle is in touch with other parents with autistic kids. And it’s almost amazing how these natural groups form around parents and dealing with these issues. And this one particular group is called MAMMA, Mothers Advancing Medical Marijuana for Autism. And a few of them suggested that maybe she try giving cannabis to Vincent.
Michelle: I said, “Yeah, that’s cool. Thanks for sharing.”
Ben Markus: And that’s as far as it went because Michelle was not taking cannabis seriously as a treatment option for her very sick son. Until one day not long after Vincent’s epilepsy had emerged, the head of MAMMA dropped her a line.
Michelle: The president kind of popped in my inbox and she goes, “Hey Michelle, I know you’re going through a lot. I’m really praying for you. If you ever want to talk and if you ever want to talk a little bit more about some options, let me know.” I’m like, “Okay, yep. Now’s the time. Now we’re going to talk.” So we talked.
Ben Markus: But really that’s all Michelle could do while she was living in Texas.
Ann Marie Awad: Right. So the Lone Star State has medial cannabis, but it’s the Texas version. It’s far more restrictive. Vincent could qualify because the state allows it for epilepsy, but it’s smaller doses. Too small to be of any use to Vincent. Plus Texas is not exactly brimming with dispensaries like Colorado or California. There is one in the whole freaking state of Texas.
Ben Markus: Right. So Michelle realizes pretty quickly the Texas system is not going to work for Vincent.
Ann Marie Awad: No.
Ben Markus: So around this time, Michelle’s boyfriend, Scott, he became so invested that he would join Michelle at things like autism conferences, where he heard a doctor speak about cannabis as a possible treatment.
Michelle: And Scott listened to him talk and he walks out and he goes, “Michelle, we have to move to Colorado.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? We’re not moving to Colorado. You retired from the Air Force here. This is where we are. You’ve been here. This is our home.” “No, we need to move to Colorado. And by the way, will you marry me?” We got engaged that weekend and then we said, “All right, we’re moving to Colorado.”
Ann Marie Awad: They became medical marijuana refugees like we mentioned earlier.
Ben Markus: But first they have to visit Colorado and find a place to live.
Ann Marie Awad: That would help, yeah.
Ben Markus: And after that they have to see maybe if Vincent will even respond to medical marijuana. And so the whole family goes looking for houses. This is the fall of 2017. And while they’re here, they buy some cannabis legally and they decide to give a little bit of it to him. So it’s like lunchtime, the weather’s nice, and Michelle and Scott decide to administer the first dose of cannabis to Vincent on the outdoor patio of this restaurant.
Michelle: We didn’t really have any expectations. That we would just –
Scott: Just that it would moderate his behavior. That the aggression would go away and that maybe it would unlock the loving person on the inside and not the person that we saw on the outside that was the result of the pharmaceuticals. And we got it in spades. I mean when he took his first dose, he suddenly wanted to hug with us and he giggled and he became very happy. And it was obvious that it wasn’t a high, that it was a completely different kind of effect on him. And that it just, it really did unlock the person on the inside. And it let us, I remember Michelle said it, she said it was like meeting her son for the first time.
Ben Markus: Imagine for a second how powerful that is, right? Feeling like you’ve met your son for the first time. So as big as it sounds to move from Texas to Colorado, the family has decided that this is the right move for them.
Ann Marie Awad: Ben, I think it’s important that we offer some kind of disclaimer here.
Ben Markus: Right. So I talked to several doctors who are specialists in these fields of epilepsy and autism, and doctors tell me that there is some promise in terms of research for marijuana’s effectiveness for epilepsy. When it comes to autism, it’s pretty thin. But as one doctor told me, “It’s not going to set your kid on fire.” And so if you have somebody who is a tough case, it’s not the end of the world to give it a try.
Ann Marie Awad: Michelle and Scott thought they found some kind of miracle, but that isn’t the end of their story. After a short break, we’ll find out if moving to Colorado was worth it in the long run.
Ann Marie Awad: Two years ago, Michelle and Scott, now married, move from Texas to Colorado so they can get access to medical marijuana for Vincent. But nowadays, it’s not as accessible as it once was. This is a problem on the business end of things. So Ben, we sent you out to find someone who could explain exactly what’s changed.
Ben Markus: So I want to introduce you to Tim Cullen. He owns Colorado Harvest Company. He’s become kind of a marijuana mogul in the years that I’ve been interviewing him on this beat. He’s tall, he’s in his mid-40s, and he lets us into his house. And I have to admit I was a little shocked. Damn, dude.
Tim Cullen: Yeah, this place is cool, huh?
Ben Markus: This place is sweet!
Tim Cullen: It’s got this Deuce Bigalow thing going on here …
Ben Markus: Views of the Front Range, there’s this really cool art on the walls, and this saltwater fish tank that kind of stops you in your tracks.
Tim Cullen: This thing is like living art to watch.
Ben Markus: When you first walked in here, what did you think?
Tim Cullen: I thought if I could figure out how this house could be my house, I’m going to try to figure that out. And it all worked out.
Ann Marie Awad: Wow. This is the house that legal weed built, huh?
Ben Markus: Right. But it all started with medical cannabis. Tim’s interest in weed, it actually goes back to his childhood in Colorado. His dad was a Vietnam veteran. Now, he didn’t openly smoke in front of his children, but he didn’t really hide it, either.
Tim Cullen: My father just owned my brother and I on Saturdays. And one of the jobs that he always gave us was cleaning his cars. And so one day we were cleaning out one of the cars and we found about a half a joint. And we decided we were going to put it in the garage in a place where if he asked for it, we could find it again. But if he didn’t ask for it, we were going to wait for a while and then see if that thing couldn’t disappear. So yeah, that was the first time that I ever held onto it myself. And lo and behold, he never asked for it. So that was also the first time I ever smoked marijuana.
Ben Markus: So that’s when weed was mostly about fun for Tim and his dad. Eventually they realized they have Crohn’s disease, which is this kind of bad stomach ailment. We’re not going to get into all of the details.
Ann Marie Awad: Right. But from what I understand, it’s a condition that involves a lot of pain. And this is not the first time I’ve heard people using marijuana to treat that pain.
Ben Markus: Marijuana helps. Tim says he sees an opportunity here. Both him and his dad are using it. Maybe he can help other people. So this is the mid-2000s in Colorado. We’ve legalized medical cannabis a few years before. And the law allows homeowners to kind of grow plants for other people. And so Tim starts to put together these different patients and grow for them. And around this time, Tim’s kind of unsatisfied with his job as a high school biology teacher.
Ann Marie Awad: Wait, isn’t there a show about a high school science teacher who makes drugs?
Ben Markus: It was really popular, Breaking Bad.
Ann Marie Awad: Breaking Bad.
Ben Markus: He’s heard all the Breaking Bad jokes. But he starts experimenting with growing medical marijuana. He was already an avid gardener. His parents were both gardeners. And so he goes out to get some starter plants, to get some grow lights, and he fills the basement with weed. Something his wife isn’t exactly thrilled with at first.
Tim Cullen: But at the same time, too, I explained to her, she knew that I was dealing with the Crohn’s thing. She knew my father was dealing with it also. So it just sort of was what it was. It was more like a craft beer hobby that someone might have in their basement than something that you’re thinking about … Like it wasn’t too Breaking Bad at that point. It was just dabbling a little bit.
Ben Markus: Dabbling a little bit is an understatement. Tim becomes an expert in growing cannabis. And over time he starts to think, “I can do more than just help people with this. I might be able to make some money off of it.” And so Tim’s life really changed on this one kind of really busy fateful day.
Tim Cullen: That is a day I will never forget. I woke up early in the morning with my letter of resignation.
Ben Markus: So Tim is all-in now. It’s 2009, the height of the recession. He cashes out his teacher retirement savings, about $80,000, and he plows it into this new business venture. He had been teaching for eight years in high school. He shows up one day, hands in his letter of resignation, and then he goes straight from there to leasing out this kind of moldy warehouse in southwest Denver.
Tim Cullen: You have to remember, also, that that was, the recession was going on at that point, too. And this building had sat vacant for a while. So landlords had some incentive to rent to some people maybe they otherwise wouldn’t have. Not that I was shady, but at the time the business was a little shady in terms of not being heavily regulated then.
Ben Markus: Once he signs the lease, it’s official. Old career as high school biology teacher is over. New career as fledgling marijuana business owner had started. And then it was time to actually break the news to his parents over lunch. This is all happening in the same day.
Tim Cullen: My mom just about fell off the high top bar stool that we were having lunch on. And they were really concerned about the safety aspects of it and what does this mean? What are you really doing with this? And I didn’t have a lot of answers because we just hadn’t done it yet. I didn’t have the answers that a mom is going to want to hear the answers to when you tell her something like that.
Ben Markus: Despite the concerns from mom, Tim is on his way to becoming a marijuana business owner. He grows lots of plants. He opens his medical dispensaries, one of the first to open in the city of Denver, and he sells lots of marijuana to medical patients. And when recreational sales started in 2014, that’s when things really took off.
Ben Markus: Because the customer base in the medical system was 100,000 registered patients, more or less, they had to be state residents, they had to find a doctor to give them a recommendation. But with recreational marijuana, suddenly anyone in the world 21 and over are potential customers.
Ann Marie Awad: So after rec becomes legal, Tim is one of the people that jumps on it. And this is what starts to cause this kind of shrinkage in the medical market, right? Fewer customers, fewer people, to be blunt, not faking it anymore?
Ben Markus: Right. All those people who didn’t really need it for medical reasons, they could just buy it on the recreational side, it’s just a lot easier. And so lines for recreational weed just snake out the door for months after the first sales start. Tim becomes very successful. And within a few years, he was on the cover of 5280 magazine.
Ann Marie Awad: 5280 is like a local magazine, glossy lifestyle kind of thing.
Ben Markus: Now he’s the face of Colorado’s cannabis industry. And his mom spots it in the checkout line at the grocery store.
Tim Cullen: And that is what was legitimate cannabis to her, like that was, you’ve made it. Nothing left to worry about. You’re on 5280 Magazine now.
Ben Markus: No, I like all the house plants.
Michelle: So the irony of this is that I don’t grow cannabis.
Ann Marie Awad: Back to Michelle and Scott and Vincent.
Ben Markus: They have this nice house south of Denver. Vincent likes to hang out on the big couch in the living room. There’s lots of nice sunlight there. Michelle keeps a lot of house plants in the windows nearby.
Michelle: I have 90 house plants, and not one of them is cannabis.
Ben Markus: Why not?
Michelle: Because I don’t feel knowledgeable enough yet to do that.
Ben Markus: They’re pretty technical, actually.
Michelle: They are. And there’s mold and whatnot. And there’s also legal issues, too.
Ann Marie Awad: That is funny because as a med card holder, Michelle could grow a certain number of plants at home if she wanted to. But she’s right, it can get really complicated. Ideally you would just go to the dispensary, right?
Ben Markus: And she does. Michelle and Scott say that Vincent’s autism and epilepsy has improved dramatically while using cannabis. He speaks a little more. He has fewer seizures. He generally takes fewer medications, which means fewer side effects. Some of those side effects, like we said, could be really nasty.
Michelle: He was attacking me every day. He was pulling my hair. He was choking me, he was punching me, and it was beyond his control. He wanted to stop, but he couldn’t.
Ann Marie Awad: Here’s Michelle recently at the state capitol in Denver, testifying in support of this bill that would allow for medical marijuana as a treatment for autism.
Michelle: We moved here and our lives changed forever. My son doesn’t attack me anymore. He’s taught himself to read. We have two new puppies, which we never could have had.
Ben Markus: To be clear, Vincent was able to qualify for medical marijuana because he had epilepsy, not for his autism, because it wasn’t allowed yet. Michelle thinks that’s not enough, though. She wants this to be available for kids who have just autism. And that’s a big reason why she’s thrown herself into activism since she moved to Colorado.
Michelle: We have the opportunity to change these families lives. And I ask you, I ask you to please be a part of this and please help me change these children’s lives.
Ann Marie Awad: That bill eventually became law earlier this year.
Ben Markus: But despite that, it’s actually getting harder for Vincent to find cannabis. When they arrived here two years ago, medical marijuana was everywhere. It was pretty easy. Head to a dispensary that sells medical products, find what you need, and go. But over time …
Michelle: When I would go into my kind of regular spots and they wouldn’t have these typical products, I would get a typical salt that I would like or an edible, and they wouldn’t have them. And they had less and less and less. And the shelves were literally barren. And that’s when I really started to realize, now that medical dispensaries are shutting down to become just recreational, it’s more apparent than ever.
Ann Marie Awad: You might be thinking, so what? Can’t they get what Vincent needs on the recreational side?
Ben Markus: Right. So medical marijuana isn’t exactly the same thing as recreational marijuana. First, Vincent is under 21, so he can’t access the recreational market legally at all. So he loses access altogether if medical goes away.
Ann Marie Awad: And medical products legally have a higher potency limit. So a gummy from the med side can be a lot more powerful than a gummy from the rec side.
Ben Markus: Michelle told us about this time when Scott accidentally took one of Vincent’s edibles. Knocked him out for an entire day.
Ann Marie Awad: And then of course there’s this money issue. Medical patients pay much lower taxes on medical marijuana products. It sort of makes up for the fact that your health insurance is not going to pay for the stuff.
Ben Markus: So the thing that’s going on here is this economic death spiral in medical cannabis. Colorado regulations say you can only grow so many plants versus how many patients you have.
Ann Marie Awad: So fewer patients means fewer plants, which means fewer products on the shelves.
Ben Markus: Which creates hassles for people like Vincent who actually rely on marijuana as a medicine.
Ann Marie Awad: Which is a little crazy when you think about it. Colorado voters approved medical marijuana as a constitutional amendment, which required it to be legal and available to those who need it. In theory, that should be ironclad.
Ben Markus: So this is a good time to get back to Tim Cullen. Earlier this year, he ran these ads for medical cannabis. Basically half price, like this is the cheapest you can buy cannabis on the medical side, and crickets. Nothing. Nobody came to take him up on it.
Tim Cullen: And I said, “I can’t sell it for less than that. I have to change. Like we’re either going to stop paying for the licenses and just not sell it or we’re going to find something else that we can do.” That’s when it felt to me like there was just no hope in trying to stay as a medical cannabis company.
Ben Markus: So earlier this year, Tim decided to get out of the medical business. A very difficult decision for him. When I visited, they were still switching things over.
Tim Cullen: This is where medical has always traditionally been up here.
Ben Markus: The medical counter. What once was the medical counter is now the connoisseur corner. This is for people who like handmade gourmet weed products.
Ann Marie Awad: So medical marijuana is gone at Colorado Harvest Company, even though it helped build the business.
Ben Markus: And even though Tim used this as a medicine himself for his Crohn’s disease, he kept his medical reg card and still pays to renew it every year. It’s bittersweet for him.
Tim Cullen: I didn’t think that we would lose it so quickly, but at the same time it’s evolved into something different that’s given a lot more access to a lot more people.
Ann Marie Awad: Now to be clear, Michelle and Vincent were never customers at Tim’s store. But here is where their stories intersect, at least philosophically.
Ben Markus: Tim actually thinks that this is the natural evolution of the weed business. Michelle looks at this and her son, Vincent, though, other families on the medical registry, and she sees what she thinks is a life-threatening trend.
Michelle: I’m afraid of cannabis becoming even more out of reach financially for those who need it most. These are the patients. These are the citizens of Colorado that are most vulnerable. And only having access to retail cannabis means that they may not be able to get it. And that puts us behind. That takes us back to the dark ages in cannabis times. And people are going to go without their medicine.
Tim Cullen: I mean that is exactly the kind of story that tugs on my heartstrings. I mean those are the legitimate concerns. Those are the people who will suffer by lack of availability. So I think those are real concerns. I would also venture to say that there is going to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Like this is a sticky area for her at this moment right now, but I think there will be enough changes that will happen.
Ann Marie Awad: So basically he’s saying that med patients like Vincent can really only bank on the model eventually changing? Like is he pinning everything on the slow pace of regulatory change?
Ben Markus: Kind of. But here’s what he thinks. He thinks that Colorado, like a lot of states, has this weird system, right? Where the medical and the recreational side of the canvas, they’re both living in the same spot. Sometimes on the same counter, just separated on opposite ends. He says it’s like combining a pharmacy and a liquor store in the same spot.
Ann Marie Awad: That does seem kind of weird when you put it that way, but it sounds like he’s hoping for regulators to just sort all of that out at some point in the future.
Ben Markus: Right. To start to treat it a little bit more like an actual medicine. And so according to Tim, it’s not letting medical marijuana die off. It’s just divorcing it from the recreational side of the business.
Tim Cullen: Just like other things you would pick up from your doctor prescribed to you at a pharmacy. Whereas I think recreational marijuana is going to continue to look a lot like it does right now and probably follows this like liquor store model.
Ben Markus: And that would mean that recreational stores can just focus on making money their way. And there’d be a more tightly-regulated medical industry that acts more like pharmacies.
Ann Marie Awad: So it sounds like this maybe is a job for the regulators. That’s the only way I can think of this happening. But right now marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. So it doesn’t seem like those changes can even happen until the federal government make some changes, too.
Ben Markus: And most people in the industry are not banking on the federal government making any significant changes anytime soon. But Tim believes this would solve another problem that I actually hadn’t even considered. And he didn’t bring it up until we arrived at his dispensary.
Tim Cullen: To come back to that, I’m still troubled that that woman is so concerned about running out of oil. It is also troubling for me, though, when I have to work with people like that who are asking me questions that they should be asking their doctor, like how much of this should my kid take? How frequently should they take it? How many milligrams of THC should they be ingesting? How about CBD? Like those are questions doctors should be answering, not dispensary owners. So I feel like that transition is ripe all the way around.
Michelle: Can you tell him about your medicine?
Michelle: Does it help you feel better?
Vincent: Help feel better?
Michelle: Yes or no?
Ann Marie Awad: We’ve spent a lot of time on this first season of On Something exploring how legalization affects people’s lives. And I think this is one of our clearest examples. Thirty-three states have signed on to medical marijuana, a completely unprecedented experiment in public health. Think about it. Thirty-three states have signed on to allow people access to a medicine that they can’t get at a pharmacy, that their insurance won’t pay for. And now the availability of that medicine depends on businesses. Businesses who can’t make money off of this thing anymore.
Ann Marie Awad: This is a big, glaring, unintended consequence of the way that weed legalized. And now states that are considering jumping on the medical marijuana bandwagon, states like Wisconsin or Indiana or Kentucky, they are all going to have to reckon with this as well.
Ben Markus: And as Michelle would tell you, that’s why a growing number of people in this country will determine where they live based on whether or not they can access medical marijuana.
Michelle: Do you want to go back to Texas?
Vincent: Mm-mm (negative).
Michelle: Can you say it? Do you want to go back to Texas?
Vincent: No Texas.
Michelle: No. No Texas.
Michelle: We won’t talk about Texas anymore.
Ann Marie Awad: Ben, thank you so much for bringing home our last episode of On Something for this season.
Ben Markus: It’s an honor to share this reporting with you. And I’m glad that you’re the person who does the weed reporting now, not me anymore.
Ann Marie Awad: That’s right. You have passed the baton. Y’all, we’ll be back soon with new stories about life after legalization. So make sure that you are subscribed. And this also doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. You can still leave us a voicemail with your feedback, your story ideas, or tips at (720) 420-6587. That’s (720) 420-6587. You can also shoot us an email at email@example.com. And the On Something newsletter will keep on trucking, so be sure to subscribe at onsomething.org.
Ben Markus: On Something is a labor of love and often a headache for those who have to report and write it like myself, Ben Marcus, Brad Turner, and Ann Marie Awad.
Ann Marie Awad: Produced and mixed by Brad Turner and Rebecca Romberg. Our editor is Curtis Fox.
Ben Markus: Music by Brad Turner, as well, and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale, my boss.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz, Iris Gottlieb, and Kendall Smith.
Ben Markus: This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.
Ann Marie Awad: This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at cpr.org.
Ben Markus: I’m just gonna give you some weird noises. So when you’re editing this, yeah.
Ann Marie Awad: You’re trying to end up in the post-credits.
Brad Turner: Going to have a five minute post-credits [crosstalk 00:35:34].
Ann Marie Awad: It is the finale.
Brad Turner: Give the people what they want.
Ann Marie Awad: Exactly.