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Marijuana: MMJ Patient Numbers Drop Slightly Despite High Rec Prices, Lawmakers' Fears

Despite lawmakers' claims that MMJ patient numbers are growing because of people trying to avoid recreational taxes on pot, patient numbers actually dropped slightly between May and June to 113,506 total red-card holders (down about 1,700 people). In fact, the only population that seems to be increasing on the registry are minors, whose numbers grew from 335 at the end of May to 357 at the end of June.

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In recent months, lawmakers have started looking into tax figures from recreational marijuana, which are at about half of what the state had projected before legalized cannabis sales to adults 21 and up began in January. Now the state is saying taxes for the first six months are running about $21.5 million short. Part of the problem, they say, is that the prediction of patients jumping off the MMJ registry in droves just didn'€™t happen.

They also believe the high numbers are the result of non-legitimate patients getting on the registry to avoid recreational taxes.

Larson Silbaugh, an economist for the state, told KDVR this week that patient numbers have been growing steadily since recreational pot was legalized -- implying that people are faking illnesses to get cheap herb. But, in fact, more people are leaving the registry than joining it. Along with actual registry numbers dropping in May and June, patients either dropping off the registry or failing to renew their cards far outweighed new patient applications. Since January 2014, 16,820 of the latter have been received by the Department of Public Health and Environment. But in that time, the registry has only grown by 2,476 people. That means nearly 14,344 people have decided to no longer go through the Colorado medical cannabis registry in six months.

Current red-card totals aren't far off registry numbers from 2010, when the state began heavily regulating medical cannabis dispensaries. That September, for example, there were just over 106,000 patients.

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In total, about $24.7 million in recreational marijuana and $28.65 million in medical cannabis was sold in June. Lawmakers say they would like to see the recreational marijuana figures much higher to meet state expectations -- goals that some believe were set unreasonably high to avoid sending marijuana tax money back to taxpayers due to TABOR laws.

We would argue that patient numbers have stayed about the same since recreational sales began because the only reason medical patients would have dropped off the registry was to avoid the cost of a doctor's visit and registering with the state. But since recreational cannabis is overpriced and the special sales-tax rates from state and local governments make it even worse, there is little incentive for a medical patient to access his cannabis through the recreational market. The price of herb before taxes is often double what it would be for medical cannabis.

Other registry statistics remained the same. Two-thirds of registered patients are men (average age: 41) and nearly 60 percent live in the Denver metro area. Approximately 93 percent of MMJ patients report suffering from severe pain, by far the most common condition for a medical cannabis recommendation. About 53 percent designate a caregiver or medical marijuana dispensary to grow for them, with the majority opting for the storefront options as opposed to a private grower.

One welcome change to the registry may be forthcoming: State officials have proposed doing away with the flimsy paper "red card" and issuing plastic licenses for patients. Aside from the size, the cards will replace the red ink patients are used to with ink of a slightly purple hue.

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