Limited quantities, sticker shock, and some mislabeled product.
The first week of medical marijuana sales in Pennsylvania was marked by these birthing pains. On the whole, retailers and the Department of Health said the launch of the nascent industry — expected to grow into one of the nation's largest markets — had largely gone "as hoped."
"We've been working to get medicines to patients as quickly as we can," said department spokeswoman April Hutcheson. "To see that come to fruition is a big win for the moms with sick children and all the patients who needed this medication."
Only one of the dozen state-permitted grower-processors, Cresco Yeltrah, shipped product last week to retailers. As a result, several of the six dispensaries sold out of some items — CBD capsules and a highly concentrated form of THC called "shatter" — within the first hour of opening.
Some patients were stunned by the cost of the medications. Because all forms of marijuana are considered illegal by the federal government, insurance does not cover the expense, and patients must pay directly out of pocket.
"Those prices are ridiculous," said marijuana activist Mike Whiter. "The dispensaries have a near monopoly on this medicine and it bothers the hell out of me to see what they're charging."
Retail prices varied widely between the two retailers operating in the Philadelphia region. The cost of a disposable vape pen loaded with blueberry-flavored THC oil was $25 at TerraVida Holistic Centers in Sellersville, but $45 at Keystone Shops in Devon.
A resin cartridge loaded with "Reserve Joliet Jake" was $80 at TerraVida, and cost $115 at Keystone. A 500 mg of "DJ Flo RSO oil was selling for $50 in Sellersville, but $75 in Devon.
Keystone Shop's COO Skip Shuda said he recognized that prices were "a sensitive point for a lot of people."
"It's an early market, and we have a single supplier, and we'll need to calibrate over time," Shuda said. "Real estate is expensive on the Main Line and we have to make sure our expenses are covered."
About 1,700 patients visited Pennsylvania dispensaries between Feb. 16 and Feb. 23, according to the Department of Health. Each patient, who could buy a month's supply of medical cannabis per visit, spent about $200, dispensary owners said.
Chris Visco, co-owner of TerraVida, said during the first six days more than 300 people made appointments to meet with a staff pharmacist. There was an equal number of walk-ins. On average, each consultation lasted about 20 minutes, she said. She said the majority of patients had come from the Philadelphia suburbs, but one had driven four hours from the central part of the state to be among the first in line.
One of the products, a highly concentrated oil called RSO, had been mislabeled as containing 10 doses when it actually contained 100. Visco said a staff member noticed the discrepancy and alerted the producer which rushed new labels to the shop.
"That was really the only hiccup," Visco said. "It's been better than expected." She said Cresco had restocked the sold-out inventory and was preparing to ship out the second harvest of medical marijuana. Products with CBD — the therapeutic compound often used to treat autistic children with epilepsy — likely will remain in short supply because of a slower growing cycle, she said.
Two more medical marijuana cultivators, Terrapin and Standard Farms, are expected to begin shipping product to dispensaries in mid-March.
About 19,600 patients have registered with the state. Of those, more than 5,000 have been certified by physicians. About 380 physicians have been authorized by the state to write recommendations for medical marijuana.