Medical marijuana in Connecticut has problems. Legalizing adult recreational use can fix them

Excerpts from two medical marijuana websites list the same “Dr. Wilkins” in Connecticut and Jacksonville, Fla.

Connecticut has gotten right most aspects of its medical marijuana program, but some parts are broken. Legalizing adult recreational use of cannabis can fix what’s broken and can prevent from breaking what’s fixed.

Mark Mathew Braunstein

What’s working? Its ballooning rosters of patients, physicians, and dispensaries are hallmarks of a successful program. So let’s look at those numbers.

Medical marijuana (MMJ) was legalized here in 2012. By 2015, 4,914 patients had registered. In 2017, that mushroomed fourfold to 22,279. Last June, that nearly doubled to 41,292. As of January, 49,721 total. That means one of every 75 Connecticut residents is now a registered patient.

In 2012, 13 conditions qualified a patient. By 2016, the list expanded to 17. In 2020, doubled to 38, when chronic pain of at least six months duration became a qualifying condition. Long term or short, chronic pain has opened the floodgates.

The commissioner who oversees the medical marijuana program predicted the June 2020 figure will quickly double. At this twofold rate, by 2023 every darn one of us Nutmeggers could be enrolled. So let’s save ourselves the piles of paperwork. Let’s legalize cannabis for adults.

The roll call of physicians who sponsor patients also has steadily increased. In 2017, checkmark 801. In 2018, tally up 1,010. As of January, 1,381 total doctors.

My doctor for treating my spinal cord injury since 1992 is one of them. When my permit came due for annual renewal, I simply emailed him a reminder. No special appointments, so no extra costs. Our routine appointments were fully covered by medical insurance. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But when he departed my local hospital after its merger with Yale New Haven Health, I was left in the lurch.

In 2018, in search of a new sponsor, I learned that hospitals typically prohibit their hundreds of affiliated physicians from sponsoring MMJ. Their institutional bias emerged during my in-person appointments with specialists within Yale New Haven Health, at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, and at Mount Sinai Hospital in Hartford. My medical records state that my sole medication is MMJ, so cannabis does stand out. Without my asking, they bluntly stated that they do not sponsor MMJ patients. End of conversation.

I hit the same brick wall within Hartford HealthCare, but with a twist. While supportive of my 28-year-long use of MMJ, the physician referred me to his go-to “pot doc.” Doctors even outside the umbrella of hospital networks dread dealing with bureaucratic red tape or risking being branded as pot docs. To meet patient demand, a cavalcade of pot docs has sprung to action.

Search the internet for “Connecticut medical marijuana doctors.” You’ll discover dozens of doctors each with multiple offices, and multiple websites each with dozens of doctors. Even “Connecticut pot docs” will get you there. If you dare click on the links, run for your life.

For instance, one pot doc maintains eight offices, six spread across our state from Greenwich to Hartford, plus one each in Miami Beach and Manhattan. “100% online medical cannabis evaluations for an MMJ card in CT, FL, and NY.” He must spend more time commuting between offices than treating patients.

Few pot docs qualify with medical insurers, so their patients pay out of pocket, on the spot, and through the nose. The rock-bottom rates blared on the internet are $175 for initial appointments and $150 for annual renewals. Those who don’t publicize their prices charge up to $300 a pop.

Our MMJ law was intended to prevent reenactment of the Wild West of California where shyster doctors in shady clinics used to grant “weed cards” to anyone who shelled out the cash. Yet, our legislators messed up when they specified “a bona fide physician-patient relationship.” “Bona fide” is a nebulous quality, and qualities elude quantifying. “Long-term,” indeed “one year,” would be clearer. How to banish pot docs from Connecticut? The same way that California shut them down. By legalizing recreational.

Our MMJ law sought to boost the state’s economy by requiring that cannabis be grown within our borders. Initially, three of our four cultivation labs were Connecticut-based companies. Likewise, our six startup dispensaries were run like mom-and-pop stores precisely because most of them were owned by moms and pops.

In just eight years, two of the four grow labs were acquired by larger out-of-state corporations, while six dispensaries grew to 18. Thanks to the state’s puzzling choices in granting new licenses, our nation’s largest cannabis corporation that already grew cannabis here now also owns four dispensaries here. CEO’s call that vertical integration. Regulators and watchdog agencies call that monopolizing. Aptly, that behemoth’s newest dispensary sits diagonally across the street from a Walmart.

Years ago, we patients rhapsodized in online forums and political rallies about our MMJ community. Presently, grow labs and dispensaries tabulate in spreadsheets and annual reports their MMJ industry. Community has been lost to industry. Has anything been gained?

Granted, cannabis now is safer and cheaper. But not cheap enough to compensate for annual license fees and, for patients forced to consult them, pot docs’ renewal fees. Patients would save more if we could legally grow our own, same as next door in Rhode Island since 2006 and in Massachusetts since 2012.

In Massachusetts, recreational cannabis is heavily taxed, while MMJ is not. Connecticut could collect its fair share of revenue by taxing recreational consumption. Then, patients who chose to retain their permits sponsored by “bona fide” doctors would avoid paying both recreational taxes and pot doc fees.

A massive billboard advertising a Massachusetts pot shop greets drivers on 1-95 in Providence. That’s Massachusetts’ way of tacitly thumbing its nose at Rhode Island. While our legislators dally, another billboard might yet be posted to greet drivers on I-84 or I-91 in Hartford. And Massachusetts will duly be taunting Connecticut. Unless legislators stop fiddling while MMJ burns. Unless legislators act to legalize recreational cannabis.

Mark Braunstein of Waterford has provided in-person testimony in support of Connecticut’s medical marijuana bills at seven of the eight public hearings held from 1997 until its passage into law in 2012.


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