Just months after eight Hawaii companies were given the go-ahead to begin growing medical marijuana, the first crops are being harvested and we've learned the first dispensaries could be open this summer.
This new timeline comes as a key hurdle that's slowed the process has been cleared, but it's not the only challenge that lies ahead.
The harvested marijuana needs to be tested to see if it meets the standards to be sold in a dispensary.
Keith Ridley heads the Office of Health Care Assurance at the Department of Health, and helps oversee the medical marijuana licensing program for the state. He says the state is working with several labs that must prove they have the equipment and personal to ensure accurate and expected results.
"Our concern mostly is for contaminants. If there's heavy metals, pesticides, or other things that are in there that shouldn't be ingested, for example, those are the kind of things we're really more concerned about," Ridley said. "What to comes down to testing medical marijuana products, we want to make sure that we provide the same kind of scrutiny or the similar scrutiny that we would expect from a drug manufacturer, so the product is safe, and the patient is safe as well."
Pono Life Sciences Maui, LLC is one of the local groups granted licenses to grow and eventually dispense medical marijuana in Hawaii.
"The lab needs the samples to be certified with the state and from there, we can start scaling up production," said CEO Mike Takano. "What's more important is that we get a chance for the first time to get a quality assurance test on our product. We get to find out exactly what we have, and what we hoped to have in the strain and we will know we have that."
Takano says his company has already spent millions building a secure, state-of-the-art grow facility.
"This is a high-stakes game, and it is painful. Every single month of these delays are costing us a lot of money," he said.
State regulations prevent us from showing the entire facility, or even taking our camera inside, but it is very similar to a grow facility in Las Vegas.
Takano says the next step toward getting dispensaries open is getting the labs connected to a state tracking system that not only holds test results, but keeps an inventory of every marijuana single plant from seed to sale.
This information is connected to a database at the dispensary which is then hooked up to a database of patient records to make sure the products are only going to those with medical marijuana cards.
After all that's done, the product is retested a final time before it's ready to be sold.
Racquel Bueno, MD, FACS is on the staff of the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, and is also part of the team at Pono Life Sciences.
"We've had medical marijuana use since the year 2000, but the absence of the dispensary system, so it most certainly is long overdue," Bueno said. "What we have to do as the medical community is be thoughtful about exploring all the benefits of medical marijuana and really responsibly moving forward and educating yourself first and foremost about its overall benefits."
Assuring all safety and security measures are met, Ridley believes dispensaries will be able to start selling product sometime this summer.
Despite the delays, he also says Hawaii scores high nationally when it comes to medical marijuana access. Out of 44 states, Hawaii received the fifth highest score and a B grade from Americans For Safe Access.
Letter-grades for all 44 states and Washington, D.C.: Alabama (F-), Alaska (D-), Arizona (B-), Arkansas (B-), California (B+), Colorado (B-), Connecticut (B-), Delaware (C+), Florida (B-), Georgia (F-), Hawai'i (B), Illinois (B+), Iowa (F-), Kentucky (F-), Louisiana (F-), Maine (B), Maryland (C), Massachusetts (B-), Michigan (B+), Minnesota (C-), Mississippi (F-), Missouri (F-), Montana (B), Nevada (B), New Hampshire (B-), New Jersey (C), New Mexico (B), New York (C), North Carolina (F-), North Dakota (C), Ohio (B), Oklahoma (F-), Oregon (B), Pennsylvania (B-), Rhode Island (C+), South Carolina (F-), Tennessee (F-), Texas (F-), Utah (F-), Vermont (C-), Virginia (F-), Washington (C-), Wisconsin (F-), Wyoming (F-), and the District of Columbia (B-).Click here for more information.
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