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Marijuana

A worker waters marijuana plants at the Colorado Harvest Company in Denver in this Oct. 11, 2017, photo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Missouri has approved thousands more people to use marijuana as medicine within the first six months of the process than researchers in a state-commissioned study predicted the state would see by the end of 2020, and that number could continue to outpace predictions through 2022, advocates say.

Since July 4, 21,879 Missourians have received state cards allowing them to legally possess and use marijuana as medicine after physicians confirmed they have a qualifying medical condition, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services, the agency tasked with regulating medical marijuana.

Researchers with the University of Missouri’s Economic and Policy Analysis Research Center predicted in April that Missouri would have 19,000 medical marijuana patients in 2020 after DHSS asked them to estimate the number of qualified marijuana patients and how much marijuana would be needed to serve them. The researchers estimated Missouri would have about 22,500 patients in 2021, growing to 26,000 in 2022.

Marijuana advocates said in April that the study — which used data from 2015 culled from 19 states — underestimated the number of patients Missouri would see because it used old data from states with widely varying medical marijuana programs.

“We have always predicted that the numbers would be far larger than the MU Economics study predicted,” said Dan Viets, chairman of the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association, in a written statement released last week by the Missouri chapter of the Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “They made the mistake of assuming that all medical marijuana programs are equal.”

Missouri could have at least 122,000 medical marijuana patients by the end of 2022, said Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association spokesman Jack Cardetti. The number is based on a trend in states like Colorado that saw 2% to 3% of the population licensed as marijuana patients after approving medical use, he said.

In the university study, researchers averaged numbers from 19 states that have legalized medical marijuana, looking chiefly at Washington, Arizona, Massachusetts and Colorado, which they said offered the most complete data available. The 46-page study projected the supply of marijuana would outpace demand and that the market would not support the number of businesses the state planned to license.

But because of the differences in state programs and how thoroughly they kept track of data, the study was only able to make projections “with 66% confidence” of how much marijuana patients would need.

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At the most, Missouri could have 69,272 qualified medical marijuana patients by 2022, according to the study. But even that number of patients, the study said, wouldn’t generate enough demand for the first three years for 60 commercial marijuana growers.

DHSS says it is bound by the constitutional amendment voters approved in 2018 that legalized medical marijuana to license at least 60 commercial marijuana growers, 192 dispensaries and 86 facilities that manufacture marijuana-infused products. The state expects to begin awarding licenses by January.

The law provided for so many marijuana businesses because it ensured greater access for patients and would generate competition in the market, Cardetti said.

“We think that’s good for patients and we think that’s good for the industry,” he said.

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.