A record-shattering number of Massachusetts residents obtained medical marijuana cards over the past month, a spike that followed Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to deem recreational cannabis stores “nonessential” and close them amid the coronavirus pandemic.
From March 23 to April 21, 7,235 new patients obtained a doctor’s recommendation and registered with the state’s medical marijuana program, according to new data provided to the Globe by the Cannabis Control Commission.
That is by far the most people to register within a single month. It represents a 245 percent increase over the 2,097 new patients who registered from Feb. 23 to March 22.
A total of 69,787 Massachusetts residents are now enrolled in the medical marijuana program as active patients, under which sales began in 2015, up from 63,720 at the end of March.
“The increase doesn’t surprise me — we’ve always believed that more than a majority of [recreational] customers are using cannabis for medical needs such as anxiety, pain relief, and sleep disorders,” said David Torrisi, the president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association. “There’s a direct relation to the recreational shutdown.”
However, Torrisi added, hybrid recreational-medical retailers typically derive 80 percent to 85 percent of their revenue from recreational sales. With that market closed, even record increases in the number of medical marijuana patients are merely a “drop in the bucket,” and won’t come close to offsetting the lost sales.
Torrisi said he fears many of the remaining displaced recreational consumers are simply turning to the illicit market, where products are not tested.
Unlike recreational consumers, medical marijuana patients pay no tax on cannabis purchases, and are permitted to order delivery, purchase more potent products, and take advantage of discounts and loyalty programs.
The commission assumed oversight of the program from the state Department of Public Health in 2018. Since then, the agency has moved to ease access, including by eliminating patient fees and automatically issuing temporary medical marijuana cards immediately upon a doctor’s recommendation.
More recently, in response to the pandemic, commission officials waived the requirement for patients to see a doctor in person, allowing them to consult a physician by phone or internet video instead.
Appointments typically cost $150 to $250; some doctors hand out stacks of recommendations, while other physicians provide more serious, personalized care for those with complex medical situations or who are new to marijuana. State law allows physicians and nurse practitioners to issue medical cannabis recommendations for any condition they believe the drug could help manage or treat.
Baker ordered licensed recreational marijuana businesses to close by noon on March 24, saying it was necessary to prevent out-of-staters from flocking to shops and possibly spreading the coronavirus. He has allowed medical dispensaries and their suppliers to continue operating. Baker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the surge in medical marijuana registrations.
No other state in which marijuana is legal has completely shuttered recreational sales because of the coronavirus; cannabis officials elsewhere have acknowledged many recreational consumers use the drug for medical reasons, and are instead requiring operators to use order-ahead and curbside-pickup systems.
In addition to the spike in the number of new patients, the past month also saw a substantial increase in the number of patients submitting annual renewals of their medical marijuana cards. From March 23 to April 21, 4,700 patients renewed their cards, up from 3,921 between Feb. 23 and March 22.
Image: JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF