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Medical Marijuana Subsidized For Low-Income Patients

Posted by Lindsey Steinberg on 08/22/2013 in Medical Marijuana Economics

Earlier this year, the District of Columbia included an important provision in their law allowing state residents to legally gain safe access to medical marijuana. The unique provision, not enacted in other states medical marijuana programs is a substantial discount to poor residents who qualify for the medicine.

The first-in-the-nation program would require dispensaries within the District to set aside 2 percent of their profits to successfully subsidize marijuana sales for low-income patients meeting or exceeding 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The specifics, however, are still being worked out. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has said that no state has inserted this provision into their regulations yet. In fact, he said, “This rule is totally unprecedented in the medical marijuana community.”

Unprecedented, perhaps, because absolutely no part of the medical marijuana industry is covered by insurance. And for an entirely out-of-pocket industry, one can safely assume this medicine gets particularly pricey over time. To say a medical marijuana recommendation is a steep investment would be putting it lightly. And one can consider such an opposed form of alternative medicine to be seeing the potentiality of government subsidy to be a largely progressive step for legislature. Whether or not it goes into effect in legal states nationwide, or remains principally under the radar will speak volumes about the state-governed programs’ response to the proposal.

Last month, medical marijuana sales listed in the District at the Capital City Care clinic showed a sliding scale of prices for an ounce. The clinic’s website offered a comprehensive range from $380 to $440. This range in prices is intended to reform poor citizens’ access to medical marijuana. Though qualifying conditions for obtaining medical marijuana vary on a state-to-state basis, the list of applicable conditions is often substandard at best.

Additionally, medical marijuana is seldom recommended without having tried a cocktail of other prescription medications beforehand. It is otherwise recommended, with much hesitance, as a last resort alternate. This is because no amount of beneficial patient stories can overpower the fear and aversion brought about by a federally illegal medicine.

Due to the highly restrictive list of acceptable conditions in most legal states, patients actually qualifying for their medical marijuana card are often incapacitated by their illness and are unable to hold full-time jobs. Therefore, this low-income patient reform could potentially benefit a large portion of medical marijuana consumers. Cannabis cards issued to patients will indicate whether or not they are eligible for low-income discounts on their medicine.

Certain patients have already sought financial relief from state-governed dispensaries which have taken it upon themselves to assist low-income patients without a large-scale government subsidy program in place. In Arizona, a mandated sliding scale program for medical marijuana patient license registration aids low-income patients with a 50 percent discount from the initial $150 registry fee. Recently opened Desert Bloom Re-leaf Center in Tucson has teamed up with the Southwest Arizona Patient Alliance to provide low-income patients with a discount so they can safely obtain their marijuana. The Alliance is a grass roots organization whose goal is to, “…educate, advocate, and promote activism for medical cannabis patients.” Additionally, the non-profit dispensary accepts and uses donations to help assist low-income patients in obtaining their medical marijuana card. For patients like Aaron Pfaffe, who are currently unemployed and receiving SNAP benefits, this implemented discount is a matter of life and death. With a medication able to help him survive from day-to-day with his debilitating illness, “…Programs like this are vital so that people who are low-income have access to medicine,” he said.

This mitigation has been praised by supporters who refer to medical marijuana sales as “prohibition-level prices,” said Dan Riffle, the legislative analyst for the D.C. based Marijuana Policy Project. “Marijuana is overpriced because it’s overregulated, so a program for the poor is necessary.”

St. Pierre has estimated that city dispensaries will have to ensure that their prices are not wildly different from that of illegally obtained marijuana. If buying marijuana at dispensaries costs more money, patients, low-income ones in particular, will be more inclined to begin or continue illegally obtaining their medicine. Still, it is unclear how long it will be before these rules may fully take effect.

This March, city officials proposed a subsidy program requiring dispensaries to pay toward a city-operated fund. However, that proposal was amended to ensure a discount amounting to 2 percent of their income. By auditing annual clinic reports, the city reserves the right to adjust the percentage of profits dispensaries have to reserve specifically for subsidies.

Unfortunately, St. Pierre has said that, “Nobody understands how this system is going to work.” Dispensaries remain in the dark about ways to meet the regulation’s new requirements. The 2 percent mandate can be fulfilled in different ways, however, officials have not given specific instructions on how to going about doing so. Unsurprisingly, dispensary employees are finding themselves in a confusion-driven gray area regarding the rules.

Obtaining medicine is a right every patient, regardless of their financial status deserves to have. And debating whether or not medical marijuana has its beneficial medical aspects is no more than a trivial discussion when it comes to patients safely seeking their preferential treatment. It is clear that marijuana has gained its clout and traction within the medical field, and perhaps these proposed reforms are an example of that. “There’s this outdated hysteria surrounding marijuana, but it’s much safer than many other medications,” Riffle said.