Curious about discounts on your favorite strains? You may be out of luck.
Missouri marked its first-ever sale of legal cannabis one year ago this week, but amid the flourishing of new businesses and products, dispensaries are still banned by state regulation from advertising even the most basic promotions for offers like price cuts and daily deals.
Jack Cardetti, a spokesman with cannabis industry group MoCannTrade, says the ban is frustrating to patients navigating the new market — and as a matter of policy, particularly challenging for dispensaries to follow.
"What we have here," Cardetti notes, "is both confusion and a moving target."
Back in 2018, Cardetti was among the activists behind the campaign that successfully placed a medical cannabis initiative on the ballot. Ultimately, more than 60 percent of voters gave the green light for medical cannabis to be added to the Missouri Constitution, but the text of that constitutional amendment isn't the source for the ban on promotions.
Instead, the issue comes down to the set of rules instituted post-passage by the Department of Health and Senior Services, the state agency which regulates the cannabis industry. In fact, the specific prohibition on promotions is contained entirely in a single thirteen-word sentence
: "Dispensary facilities shall not disburse medical marijuana as part of a promotional event."
At first, the rule didn't appear to prevent dispensaries from getting the word out about ongoing sales or discounts. Some dispensaries printed stacks of flyers to distribute to patients shopping at their brick and mortar stores.
For instance, one flyer from a St. Louis dispensary, distributed in late May of this year, offered a set of daily discounts, including 20 percent off for veterans every Monday, and a Friday "2 for $80" deal on eighths of flower.
Banned in Missouri: A discount flyer for a medical cannabis dispensary.
As it turns out, such a flyer would actually violate DHSS's definition of a "promotional event." The department moved to clamp down on similar promotions this summer.
In July, cannabis license holders received a letter signed by Andrea Balkenbush, the state cannabis program's compliance director.
As the letter explained, the department's perspective on "promotional event" isn't simply targeting special events outside a dispensary, but encompasses "any activity, advertisement, or publicity designed to increase interest in purchasing medical marijuana or a particular product or brand of medical marijuana."
As first reported by Greenway Magazine
, the DHSS letter offered a set of examples in an apparent attempt to illustrate the rule's extent. Advertising price discounts? That's banned, the letter noted, because "that would result in disbursing medical marijuana as part of a promotional event."
Holiday pricing is also out under the DHSS ban. Whether it's linked to April 20 or Christmas, such a policy "would also result in disbursing medical marijuana as part of a promotional event."
What is not banned under the rules, the letter continues, are actions by dispensaries to reduce their own prices "without noting or advertising the reduction." Also permitted are policies "establishing discounted pricing for classes of patients such as those designated as low-income on their medical marijuana identification card," the letter concluded.
The letter appears to have had its intended effect. A perusing of the online ordering platforms maintained by five area cannabis operators — accounting for more than a dozen physical dispensary locations in St. Louis — show lists of products and prices, and not much else. There are no crossed-out prices or brand-specific discounts. (Anecdotally, RFT
learned of some dispensary discounts during previous purchases, but only through asking employees directly at the point of transaction. )
Earlier this month, Riverfront Times
reached out to DHSS with questions about the department's expansive definition of "promotional event."
In response, spokeswoman Lisa Cox maintained that the department "has interpreted this rule narrowly using simple definitions of what promotion means in common usage."
Cox added that the department has not needed to pursue "enforcement actions" against violating dispensaries, writing, "At this time, the facilities with whom we have addressed issues have all adjusted their actions to remain in compliance with the rule.
"Importantly," she continued, "the Department’s rule does not prohibit a facility from communicating its current pricing, so patients will always be able to compare prices among facilities."
Still, while DHSS may describe the rule as narrowly applied, the actions of area dispensaries show an array of efforts that could conceivably be defined as "any activity" that increases interest in purchasing cannabis. Dispensaries still use their social media page to discuss specific products and suggested treatments for those suffering from health problems like chronic pain or insomnia. Others feature interviews with dispensary employees or budtenders discussing their favorite products. Some online ordering forms include percentage discounts for veterans or bulk purchases — offers not entirely dissimilar to the flyer of daily discounts shown above.
Meanwhile, most dispensaries maintain some kind of rewards program, offering discounts or products for patients who accrue sufficient "points" through purchases.
Do those examples cross the DHSS line for a promotional event? It's not clear. Citing discussions with dispensary owners, MoCannTrade's Cardetti says it's anybody's guess.
"From our view and the view of our members, this is a solution in search of a problem," he notes. "We've heard from several members that a patient will go in the front door, show their ID and their patient ID, they get checked into the system, go to the back of the store, and only then an employee would hand the patient a list of discounts for the day — and even that
runs afoul of the new rules."
To Cardetti, the rules seem to contradict the intent of the constitutional amendment that established legalized medical cannabis in the first place.
"Only 145,000 Missouri patients and caregivers can even get to the sales floor of a medical marijuana dispensary; the general public doesn't have access to this," he adds. "If you're not able able to tell patients the effectiveness of certain products or prices, even in that controlled environment, that's really getting far from the mission."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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