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Delays frustrate medical marijuana community

Updated: 
August 20, 2017 - 12:05am

KALAPANA — There was music playing, vendors selling trinkets and plenty of education underway Friday as members of the Big Island’s medical marijuana community gathered for the All Things Cannabis Hemp Festival.

The first-ever community education event was held at the Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar, about a week-and-a-half after Hawaii’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened on Oahu and Maui.

Many patients who attended the festival told the Tribune-Herald they’ve been frustrated by delays in the state’s dispensary program.

“We’re severely disappointed,” said Jack Robins, 64, who said he’s a medical marijuana patient and a longtime cannabis oil maker who lives in Pahoa. “It’s kind of common sense. For 17 years there’s been nothing and now they’re going to open this up and yet there are only going to be two of them — I think we need one on every street corner.”

“There are no dispensaries open (on Hawaii Island) and (it’s unclear) when they’re going to open because when they have estimated they’ll be open they’re wrong and then wrong again,” added Mountain View medical marijuana patient Aaron Zeeman, 49, noting he worries potentially high dispensary prices could also deter many Big Island residents from using them. “So everything they say turns out to not be true.”

Hawaii’s dispensaries have legally been able to open for more than a year though they’ve largely struggled to get off the ground. Recent delays stemmed from a lack of state-certified laboratories. State law requires all products sold at dispensaries to first be tested in a state-approved lab.

The DOH granted last month Oahu-based private independent laboratory Steep Hill Hawaii provisional certification to test samples of marijuana.

Steep Hill Hawaii is currently unable to test derivatives, however, which are nonsmokable cannabis products such as capsules, oils and ointments.

As a result, the first two dispensaries to open reported selling out of their initial stock of dry buds — the only product Steep Hill is currently certified to test — within days.

Teri Freitas Gorman, spokeswoman for one of the dispensaries, Maui Grown Therapies, said roughly 40 percent of customers have expressed interest in nonsmokable products.

Gorman said about 100 people have visited Maui Grown Therapies each day since it opened.

“I hope your dispensaries don’t go through what we went through,” Gorman told the Tribune-Herald, speaking about Lau Ola and Hawaiian Ethos, the two companies certified to open Hawaii Island’s first dispensaries. “It’s frustrating and it’s disappointing. The dispensary law passed in 2015 and it’s taken us quite a long time to get our front doors open. So we were given authority to manufacture cannabis products on May 24 but we were kind of blindsided … The lab came to pick up products for testing they were told we cannot test products, only flowers (dry buds). Nobody communicated with us.”

State Department of Health spokeswoman Janice Okubo said in an email the department is currently working with three private labs which are at different stages of the certification process.

She said the department “cannot predict when any of the laboratories will be able to test the full-range of manufactured products because they are still working on their validation studies” but the DOH considers the issue a “top priority.”

“This has been a challenging process and the department is committed to ensuring the safety of all products for patients … ” Okubo said. “The private laboratories are moving as quickly as they can, and one has already met some of the criteria for certification to test manufactured products (such as determining cannabinoid potency in tinctures and topicals).”

Friday’s festival featured dozens of vendors and more than two dozen speakers which included multiple physicians, industry experts and several patients.

Among those in attendance were representatives from Lau Ola who said they’re aware of frustrations by some people in the medical marijuana industry and are working to get their dispensary open by spring 2018.

“It’s really important we listen to the concerns and needs of the community,” said Lau Ola employee Jaclyn Moore, who is a pharmacist. “I think that’s just going to make this really successful, for us to be able to listen to what they want and provide the types of medicines they’re looking for.”

Medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii since 2000 but law historically never provided a way for patients to legally buy it. In 2015, lawmakers passed a bill establishing dispensaries. The department approved last year licenses for the eight initial companies to open Hawaii’s first dispensaries.

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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