It’s been a year since the Ohio Board of Pharmacy voted to make 73 more medical cannabis dispensary licenses available to address patient complaints about the lack of retail access and high prices.

That retail expansion is still in the works after the board received more than 1,450 applications for the new dispensaries in November and conducted a lottery-style drawing to determine which companies would receive provisional licenses.

RELATED: Ohio Receives More Than 1,400 Applications for 73 New Medical Cannabis Dispensary Licenses

The Board of Pharmacy staff is continuing to review and evaluate the winners to ensure they’re compliant with state laws and regulations, Justin Sheridan, the board’s director of Medical Marijuana Operations, said April 7 during a cannabis discussion panel at Ohio State University, reported. 

Adding to the current 58 dispensaries, the license expansion will bring Ohio’s total to more than 130 retail facilities in an effort by the board to increase access and decrease the number of registered patients per dispensary to below 1,200 in each of 31 districts.

As of March 24, there were 133,101 patients with both an active medical cannabis registration and an active recommendation, according to the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program (MMCP). That’s an average of roughly 2,300 patients per dispensary in today’s retail environment.

Part of that patient-to-dispensary ratio stems from significant underestimations leading up to Ohio’s launch of commercial medical cannabis sales in January 2019, when regulators projected there would be between 12,000 and 24,000 patients within the first two years of the program, according to MMCP. Those projections were based on roll-outs in states like Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.

But since Ohio’s launch, more than 250,000 patients have registered (some are no longer actively registered). In addition, licensed dispensaries reported purchases from roughly 237,000 unique patients, according to Ohio’s Automated Rx Reporting System.

Despite that program participation, many patients (13.1%) who reside in less populated areas of the state have to drive 30 to 60 miles to receive their medicine, while roughly 5.4% of patients have to drive more than 60 miles (one way), according to a to a November 2020 Ohio Board of Pharmacy survey, reported.

“So, we have about 20 percent of our population that is traveling more than 30 miles to reach a dispensary,” Sharon Maerten-Moore, an attorney for the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, told the news outlet when the survey was released. “Because the survey was anonymous, we don’t know exactly where those patients live or what their reasons are.”

Based on the geographic distribution of dispensaries in Ohio, three of the 31 dispensary districts have zero licensed retail facilities, including a pair of three-county districts in northwest Ohio, which borders Michigan, and another three-county district in southwest Ohio that specifically has 2,288 patients.

During the initial licensing process, the board did not receive “any viable applications” for dispensaries in those districts, according to MMCP.

However, to ensure there are no retail deserts, the Board of Pharmacy plans to add one dispensary license each in the two northwest districts that currently have zero operators and two licenses in the southwest district.

In addition, the board plans on increasing access in higher demand dispensary districts throughout the state to ensure equal access across those districts.

For example, Franklin County (Southeast District 3), home of Columbus, Ohio, currently has six dispensaries and will receive another nine under the 73-license expansion. Hamilton County (Southwest District 1), where Cincinnati is located, will increase from three dispensaries to 11 dispensaries. And Cuyahoga County (Northeast District 2), home to Cleveland, will double from six to 12 dispensaries.

The winners of those additional provisional dispensary licenses are listed first for each district on the lottery drawing results, but they are not automatic. The winners must meet the guidelines set forth by the Board of Pharmacy and demonstrate they can lawfully operate a business, or the next company in line will receive priority.

Overall, there were 110 applicants for the nine new licenses in Franklin County (Columbus), 89 applicants for the eight licenses in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) and 208 applications for the six licenses in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland).

Companies that receive provisional licenses will be allowed to build out their space. Then, they must pass inspections by state regulators, who are looking at advertising, security cameras and other compliance measures, reported.

Upon passing inspections, those companies will receive a certificate of operation from the Board of Pharmacy to open their businesses. The board plans to issue the provisional licenses this spring, but there is no deadline for when they have to open.