COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio medical marijuana regulators want to double the number of dispensary licenses in the state to satisfy patient demand, which has been much higher than anticipated since the program became operational.
Currently, there are 58 clinics throughout Ohio.
Ohio Board of Pharmacy staff are working on adding 73 new dispensary licenses, said Justin Sheridan, the board’s director of medical marijuana operations, at a Thursday cannabis discussion at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
That could bring the total number of dispensaries in Ohio to 131 or 132 – depending on the outcome of a court case that could create a 59th dispensary from the first round of dispensary licenses.
When Ohio’s first dispensaries opened in January 2019, regulators projected 12,000 to 24,000 patients in the first two years. They arrived at the estimate after looking at patient demand in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York.
By February 2021, two years in, there were 136,507 registered patients. Today, there are 252,139.
In addition to more patients, some areas of the state have no dispensaries, including several rural areas in Northwestern and Western Ohio. In addition, some areas in southeastern Ohio only have one dispensary across several counties.
A 2020 study found that 20% of Ohio patients traveled more than 30 miles to reach a dispensary.
The Ohio Board of Pharmacy divided the state into 31 dispensary districts to ensure that dispensaries aren’t concentrated in large cities. Since the medical marijuana customers are patients, including some with severe and terminal illnesses who may not be physically able to travel long distances, close access is a priority in the program.
The following Northeast Ohio counties will see more dispensaries under the planned license expansion:
-Cuyahoga County has its own dispensary district with six dispensaries: Amplify in Cleveland Heights, The Botanist in Cleveland, RISE in Cleveland, two RISE dispensaries in Lakewood and Terrasana in Garfield Heights. Under the new expansion plan, the Board of Pharmacy plans to add another six licenses, for a total of 12.
-Summit County also includes its own district. Currently, it has three dispensaries. The board plans to add two more, for a total of five.
-Lake, Portage and Geauga counties make up a dispensary district, currently with two dispensaries. The new plan would expand three more licenses for a total of five.
-Lorain, Medina, Wayne and Holmes counties make up a dispensary district with two dispensaries. Under the plan, the state would allow two more licenses for a total of four.
Elsewhere in Ohio:
-Franklin County, also its own dispensary district, currently has six dispensaries. It’ll get another nine under the plan, for a total of 15.
-Hamilton County, a single dispensary district, currently has three dispensaries. It’ll get eight more, for a total of 11.
In a document explaining the license expansion, the Board of Pharmacy said it looked at registered patients’ cities of residence last year. In each dispensary district, it considered the number of current dispensaries and patients who live in the district. Its goal is to decrease the number of registered patients per dispensary in each district to below 1,200.
In November, the Board of Pharmacy received 1,400 applications for new dispensaries, said Sheridan, the pharmacy board’s director of medical marijuana operations. The Ohio Lottery conducted a drawing to determine which companies would receive provisional dispensary licenses.
These days, the Board of Pharmacy staff is reviewing and evaluating the winners to make sure they’re compliant with Ohio medical marijuana law and regulations, he said.
This is different than the first round of dispensary licenses, when the Board of Pharmacy employees reviewed each application by scoring points to it based on company ownership financing and other information. However, numerous companies thought that process was too subjective, resulting in litigation across Ohio. The litigation delayed the opening of dispensaries in Ohio by several months.
The names of companies that the Ohio Lottery drew can be found here. The order for which a name was drawn in each district shows the order in which it could get a license.
However, just because a company’s name was drawn and at the top of the list doesn’t mean it automatically gets a provisional license. State officials want to ensure their applications demonstrate they could lawfully run their businesses. If a company can’t comply with state laws and regulations, then Board of Pharmacy staff turn to the next name on the list in each dispensary district, said Kylynne Johnson, a spokeswoman at the Board of Pharmacy.
Companies that receive a provisional license will be allowed to build out their space. Then they must undergo inspections by state regulators, who are looking at advertising, security cameras and other compliance. Once they pass, the Board of Pharmacy gives them a certificate of operation, which allows them to open for business.
There is no deadline for when the board wants the new dispensaries open. Instead, the board aims to issue provisional dispensary licenses this spring “and is working on the review process as quickly as possible,” Johnson said.
Many Ohio medical marijuana patients have complained about the price of products at dispensaries.
During the Thursday discussion at OSU’s law school, Republican state Sen. Stephen Huffman said that many Ohio medical marijuana patients travel to Michigan, which legalized recreational sales, where they can save money. He and other lawmakers would prefer the Ohio patients stay in the state.
The Ohio Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association has pushed back on the claims that Ohio product is overpriced compared to other states. From when the program first began, prices have decreased thanks to reliable harvests, processors and a growing number of dispensaries, it said.
The association recently released a study comparing Ohio’s prices to other states’. Michigan’s price per gram of plant material, at $4.22, is half of Ohio’s, at $9.50. Other states, however, had higher prices for a gram of flower, the study showed.
Prices will drop even more with the new dispensaries, said Matt Close, the association’s executive director.
“We look forward to the dispensaries opening, and we do believe that competition and economics will drive the prices down,” he said.
The association also said it’s crucial to increase patient access to dispensaries.
“We’ve got patients who are diving 45 minutes to an hour to get their medicine,” he said.