Researchers found that customers would travel longer distances to California marijuana dispensaries than they would for medicine available at pharmacies. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Medical marijuana in California might often be obtained by people who are far from sick, according to a recent Ohio State study.

The study was conducted before the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. Despite laws requiring an approved medical condition in order to obtain a medical marijuana card, access to marijuana was relatively easy because the cards were easily obtainable.

“You do need a medical marijuana recommendation, but they are easy to get in California,” said Bridget Freisthler, a professor of social work and co-author of the study. “So even though it’s supposed to be controlled, it’s a fairly lax process. I have heard stories of people saying they had a hangnail and that was enough to get them a medical marijuana recommendation.”

Based on exit surveys of 132 patients at four Long Beach, California, dispensaries, the researchers also found that customers would travel longer distances to dispensaries than they would for medicine available at pharmacies.

It appeared that these dispensaries were aware of the ease of access to the medical cards, Freisthler said  and so to compete with the large number of dispensaries around them they target niche markets.

Freisthler likened this to the way that bars often target specific crowds, such as sports bars or biker bars.

Dispensaries also took on other strategies of distinguishing themselves from their competitors and attracting specific populations, the research showed. One method used was creating specialized products.

“If you talk to the people, they came there for the Chex Mix. It was infused with cannabis. They felt that it was really good, that’s why they went to that place. And so, it was sort of different kinds of ways to get different populations that was not consistent amongst all the dispensaries,” Freisthler said.

Other dispensaries made specialized offers and deals, such as giving discounts to students and veterans, as well as other outside-the-box deals.

“There was a dispensary near the airport. If you could show them that you had a flight on that day either out of California or into LAX, they would give you a discount on whatever marijuana product you wanted to purchase,” Freisthler said.

The study might be useful to marijuana policymakers in controlling and understanding what happens in the cannabis market, she said, because it shows the importance of checks and balances for physicians in ensuring cannabis users have medical need.   

“What’s difficult about that is there hasn’t been a lot of research about what cannabis really helps in terms of medical conditions,” she said.