Steady growth seen in Medical Marijuana use

Norton Arbelaez has met some unusual people in his six years working in the medical marijuana industry, but one patient who gingerly walked into New England Treatment Access in Northampton, the latest marijuana dispensary to open in Massachusetts, took him by surprise.

The patient was seeking relief from gnawing foot pain, a pain the man said had plagued him for 70 years.
“I was really blown away when this older gentleman walked in and he described to me his experience in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II,” said Arbelaez, New England Treatment’s consultant for standards and practices. “His feet froze during that battle [in the winter of 1944], and he said he found a lot of relief from medical cannabis products.”

While the medical benefit of marijuana continues to be hotly debated nationwide, one picture coming into sharper focus in Massachusetts is the burgeoning number of patients seeking cannabis products.

In its first three weeks of business, New England Treatment, which opened Sept. 28, provided marijuana to 1,428 patients, according to Arbelaez.

By comparison, Alternative Therapies Group in Salem, which in June became the first dispensary to open in the state, said it served about the same amount, 1,500 — but that was during its first two months of operation. Alternative Therapies has been serving patients by appointment only.

In Northampton, as many as 40 new patients walk through the door every day, according to New England Treatment’s latest count. And the typical client is far from a twentysomething.
The average New England Treatment patient is 47 years old, and about two-thirds are men. About one-quarter are over age 60, the company said.

That’s older than the typical medical marijuana customer in Colorado, where Arbelaez founded RiverRock in 2009, one of Colorado’s first regulated medical marijuana facilities. The latest data from the Colorado health department show that while two-thirds of the state’s marijuana patients are male, the average age is about 43, and just 16 percent are over age 60.

Massachusetts regulators are still refining the way they report medical marijuana data. As of Oct. 1, the state health department counted 19,783 certified marijuana patients, a number that grew by more than 2,000 during September.

State rules require a physician to certify that a patient suffers from a medical condition, such as seizures, chronic pain, or nausea from cancer treatments, that might be eased by using marijuana. That information must be submitted to the state health department for the patient to be considered certified.

Three dispensaries have been approved to sell products in Massachusetts, including New England Treatment, which is the first to open in Western Massachusetts; Alternative Therapies; and In Good Health in Brockton, which opened Sept. 4.

A fourth company, Patriot Care, received the state’s blessing Tuesday to start planting marijuana. Company spokesman Dennis Kunian said Patriot Care executives hope to open all three of their dispensaries, in Lowell, Greenfield, and downtown Boston on Milk Street, in February.

New England Treatment intends to open its other dispensary, at Route 9 and Washington Street in Brookline, before the end of this year, according to company spokeswoman Dot Joyce.

Another company, Central Ave Compassionate Care in Ayer, also received permission to start planting back in May, but has yet to open. The company did not return a phone call from the Globe seeking an update.

A true measure of demand in Massachusetts may not come until state regulators lift a cap on the amount of marijuana that can be sold to each patient at any one time. Regulators are concerned that current screening tests may not adequately measure pesticides and metals in the products.

Laboratories in Massachusetts are still fine-tuning quality testing of marijuana products. The tests are required by the state health department under rules considered to be among the most stringent in the country.

In the meantime, dispensaries are allowed to dispense a maximum of 4.23 ounces of marijuana to patients every two months. When testing problems are worked out, patients will be allowed to buy up to 10 ounces of marijuana every two months, under state rules.