Are There Too Few Medical Cannabis Dispensaries in Utah?

It is interesting to study the differences in cannabis programs from one state to the next. Some states allow medical cannabis only. Others are okay with both medical and recreational consumption. Even the number of dispensaries can differ greatly. In Utah, there are only 15 to serve the whole state. Yet there are thousands of dispensaries in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma cannabis users do not have a whole lot of problems with access. But if you live in Utah, you know that access problems are very real. A lot of card holders in the Beehive State openly wonder if there are too few medical cannabis dispensaries in Utah.

Tens of Thousands of Patients

Utah’s medical cannabis program is still relatively new compared to many other states. The voter proposition that made it legal wasn’t passed until 2019. Utah did not get its program under way until the following year. So at this point, medical cannabis sales in the state are barely three years old.

When the program first launched, estimates suggested that the state would ultimately issue fewer than 10,000 cards. As of March 2023, there were already more than 66,700 valid card holders. Program growth continues with no end in sight.

The state also limited the number of dispensary licenses they intended to issue back in 2020. Regulators first approved 14 licenses. One more was added in 2022. That means there are just 15 dispensaries to serve a patient load rapidly approaching 70,000. Is that enough?

Preventing a Free-for-All

Utah lawmakers decided to limit dispensary licenses to prevent a free-for-all. To understand the issue here, consider the Pure Utah dispensary in Payson. They are one of the 15 total dispensaries in the state. They invested a lot of money in getting their local operations up and running; they continue to spend a lot to stay in business.

If there are too many dispensaries in Utah, survival becomes more difficult for all of them for the simple fact that operating a dispensary is expensive. Not limiting licenses would create a free-for-all mentality in which only those entrepreneurs with very deep pockets could succeed. It would create an environment for corporate entities to come in and control the market.

Lawmakers did not want that when they crafted their rules a couple of years ago. They still don’t want it. So one of the ways they keep the market under control is to license growers, processors, and dispensaries. They limit the number of available licenses in order to keep the competition manageable.

The Patient’s Perspective

Wanting to protect the market to make it easier for dispensaries to succeed is honorable and understandable. But perhaps it’s not the best choice. Think about it from the patient’s perspective. Remember that Utah is a largely rural state. There are only a few major metropolitan areas within its borders.

All but one of the 15 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in Utah is located in a major urban area. The only rural dispensary just opened in 2022. It is not a good situation for rural residents that either need to drive long distances to get to a Utah dispensary or break the law by crossing state lines. Home delivery is now possible, but it is costly and can take quite a bit of time.

Having only 15 dispensaries in total makes access a real problem for some Utah patients. Lawmakers are trying to walk that fine line of meeting patient needs but preventing a free-for-all. The question is whether they are doing so effectively. Are 15 dispensaries enough, or does Utah need more?