There's a shortage of flower marijuana in Illinois. That's because the number of medical marijuana patients has nearly doubled this year, and they're using up a limited supply. For Nature’s Treatment of Illinois in Milan, that means recreational users are unlikely to find flower marijuana at its store for months.
Pot users, ages 21 and up, will only be able to purchase edibles and vaping cartridges when recreational marijuana is legalized Jan. 1, said Shannon Ballegeer, NTI’s manager.
There are 94,373 residents with medical cards, as of Dec. 4, 2019, up from 49,366 on Dec. 11, 2018, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The biggest spike came in August, after Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law to add chronic pain as a qualifying condition for a medical card. The launch of the opioid alternative program also increased numbers this year.
Some have speculated supply is being hoarded so it's available for the recreational market. That's not the case, Ballegeer said.
Marijuana cultivators are “working off the original space they had set up for their cultivation. They’re producing everything they can as fast as they can,” she said. “We order from the cultivators just like the patients do. There’s no holding back for recreational, because there’s no benefit to us or the cultivators for holding back.”
Dispensaries must keep a 30-day inventory for their patients, said Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois. As demand grows, the inventory must, too.
That has led to a “crunch," as has several weeks passing between when the legislation was signed on June 25 and when the first recreational grow licenses were issued.
“If you do the math, it takes cannabis minimally 12 weeks, sometimes 16, depending on the plant and the strain to produce a crop. We’re bumping up against that Jan. 1 deadline,” Althoff said. “This is an initial, and hopefully short-lived, shortage. I think over the past several weeks the industry, as well as the State of Illinois, our regulators, truly understand this will be somewhat of a soft opening. But then give us a few more months, we anticipate the availability of product will significantly improve.”
This is not unique to Illinois. Ballegeer thinks recreational marijuana could be sold out on the first day, which is what happened in Michigan.
“It’s happened in every state. That is not unusual. In every state, even those that had a year; California (and) Colorado had a year to get up and running and there was a shortage,” Althoff said.
Cultivators, such as Green Thumb Industries in Rock Island, have been working to expand this year, but construction and the growing process takes time, Ballegeer said.
Limited supply and increased demand means Ballegeer hasn’t been able to buy as much flower from cultivators as she'd like. In turn, patients can’t buy as much as they are used to purchasing.
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Medical patients are upset, because “a lot of people have been using these products for years to treat the symptoms of their conditions, and then they can’t get their product," Ballegeer said.
Edibles and cartridges for vaping are available for medical patients.
“For the people that are smoking … edibles don’t have the same exact effect as smoking,” Ballegeer said. Patients “know how it works and, on top of that with all the vape issues going around nationwide, a lot of people don’t trust cartridges right now.”
That concern has sent vape patients back to flower, too.
Green Thumb Industries, which operates a cultivation center in Rock Island, received its state license for recreational growing operations in recent weeks. A GTI representative said the space had nearly doubled and jobs have been added, but declined to provide specifics.
"We expect there could be limited, intermittent product availability," GTI said in a statement Friday morning.
"We are doing everything we can to mitigate product availability and patient access issues to help make the rollout as smooth as possible, including increasing production at our wholesale facilities in Rock Island and Ogelsby; increasing wholesale and retail staff; expanding our retail stores; and adding more hours and points of sale at our retail locations.”
“We have been serving medical cannabis patients since 2015 and will continue to advocate for them.”
Althoff also said applications for existing cultivation centers to expand were slowed while the final negotiations took place ahead of the law being signed in June.
At the time, the industry brought up having "a very short, truncated period to get up and running and be ready for that Jan. 1. We thought it was a little aggressive,” she said.
And the current number of cultivation centers in the state will remain the same for all of 2020. Applications for craft growing licenses, or smaller grow operations, begin Jan. 7.
“I believe that one of the reasons that full cultivation sites were limited, or not expanded, was an attempt to allow craft grow cultivation sites the ability to be established and thrive,” Althoff said.
As recreational marijuana sales draw near in the Land of Lincoln, Althoff wanted to remind users to be responsible.
“I know everyone is excited and there will be lines, but this is an opportunity to show the general public and those individuals who have raised concerns about the legality of cannabis, it’s a great opportunity to disprove those negative expectations.”