The Highs and Lows of Ohio’s Legal Cannabis Industry So Far

Medical marijuana is legal in Ohio, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to get, even with a prescription. Here’s a look at how the industry is ramping up.

Medical marijuana faced a bumpy rollout across Ohio in 2019, with legal dispensaries taking their sweet time opening, higher than expected costs, and renewed claims of unfair criminalization of recreational use. Still, medical patients statewide bought nearly $50 million worth of legal marijuana last year, when official sales finally launched under legislation passed in 2016. Sales are projected to generate $11 million in fees for the state in fiscal 2020.

Illustration by Muti

Despite all the green, Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman believes there’s still important work to be done at the local level to prevent systemic imbalances in the cannabis industry. In June 2019, he cosponsored and passed a piece of legislation with Councilmember Jeff Pastor that, within Cincinnati city limits, decriminalized marijuana possession up to 100 grams.

The goal of this legislation, which went into effect in July, is to decrease the number of Cincinnati citizens prosecuted for possession of small amounts of marijuana—citizens who, according to Smitherman, are predominantly African American males. Smitherman also works as a stockbroker and says he was inspired to work on the legislation based on the growing gap between who profits from the marijuana industry and who is criminalized. “I’m watching billionaires being made while everyday citizens carrying small amounts of marijuana are facing criminal records,” he says.

While there are still federal restrictions on depositing profits from the direct sale of cannabis products in banks, money made from the open trading and selling of cannabis stocks from companies like Cronos Group, Inc., Aphria, Inc., and Trulieve Cannabis Corp. can be legally deposited and invested. “There are people who have been selling marijuana out of their house for 20, 30 years,” says Smitherman. “Those people are not going to stop selling just because there’s a dispensary somewhere selling at a much higher price than someone can buy on the street.”

By the end of the medical marijuana program’s first year, slightly more than two-thirds of Ohio’s 84,000 registered patients had actually made a purchase from a state dispensary. High costs and the limited number of open dispensaries have been prohibitive factors: 56 were originally granted provisional licenses; only 18 were open by mid-2019, but the number was up to 50 earlier this year. Patients looking for a more cost-effective option were left either purchasing from illegal dealers or going to nearby states like Michigan, where the medical marijuana market is more affordable. By the end of 2019, Ohio began to see more realistic prices, with a day’s supply averaging $33 in November, down from $48 in January 2019.

Chaz Mize, general manager of the Verilife dispensary on Ridge Road in Columbia Township, has experienced first-hand the changes in the market as more dispensaries open. “It’s a natural industry progression,” he says. “As we have more supply in the state and there’s more competition over time, pricing will become more aggressive, which you’ll see reflected in lower prices.”

The state program also has been hindered by a series of growing pains as operators struggled to keep up with changes in regulations. Verilife was originally scheduled to open in June 2019, but faced multiple setbacks and delays—including the required installation of multiple safes for the marijuana product, which reduced Verilife’s storage capacity. “The number one struggle, not just for us but for many of the dispensaries trying open at that time, was just lack of understanding about the program,” he says.

Mize says the company designed the layout of the dispensary to make guests as comfortable as possible. Verilife offers one-on-one consultations for buyers new to the medical marijuana program. “We’ll have a member of management or one of our experienced patient-care representatives come off the floor and spend as much time as need be with our patients in a private setting until they feel comfortable,” he says.

Consultation topics include anything from questions about their specific prescription to calculating when they’ll need to make a return visit. Planning in advance makes it easier for patients who have to travel long distances to be able to time their trips. Offering hospitality in an industry still clouded with misconceptions relieves patients and lets them focus on what’s important: their well-being. “Patients have already had to jump through so many hoops to get to this point,” says Mize. “When they get to us, it should feel like any other retail experience.”

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