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Yearlong delay frustrates local medical marijuana industry

Updated: 
July 16, 2017 - 12:05am

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of Hawaii’s first medical marijuana dispensaries being allowed to open, but the industry has still not been able to get off the ground.

Of the eight dispensary licensees, all but two have received state approval to begin growing cannabis, and at least three have marijuana ready to sell.

The dispensaries haven’t opened because the state Department of Health hasn’t certified any of the three laboratories — PharmLabs Hawaii, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii and Steep Hill Labs — that will test the marijuana’s potency and purity. The DOH said it is still conducting validation studies with the labs and expects to certify them this summer.

The delays have been frustrating for both the dispensaries and patients.

“Everyone’s trying their best and working their hardest to build this industry, including the Department of Health. However, it has been a year, and it has been financially extremely taxing,” said Helen Cho, director of integrated strategy for Aloha Green Holdings Inc., one of the three Oahu dispensaries that is ready to open. “If the delays continue for much longer, this industry may not have a fair chance of flourishing. If this goes on for a few more months, the financial hole that we’re in may be too deep for us to recover from.”

Oahu’s Aloha Green Holdings, Maui Grown Therapies and Pono Life Sciences have cannabis ready to sell, while Manoa Botanicals LLC, Cure Oahu and Green Aloha Ltd. on Kauai have received state approval to grow pakalolo. Lau Ola LLC and Hawaiian Ethos on the Big Island are still building their production centers.

“It’s unfortunate it’s taking this long because it’s really depriving people who need the medicine,” said Thayne Taylor, a 66-year-old medical marijuana patient on Kauai. “If there’s no access, that means there’s no variety of products and no education. It’s all about safety as well. There are companies right now that have spent millions and have still not been able to open. It’s really a disappointment and really a shame.”

July 15, 2016, the date dispensaries were allowed to open, was never “a realistic date,” said Manoa Botanicals CEO Brian Goldstein.

“Even if everything was ready, it would have been almost impossible to have dispensaries open in that short period of time. (But) patients have been waiting a really long time,” he said. “This process really needs to be expedited because patients do have an alternative, which is the black and gray market. It’s important to find a balance between costs and time and excessive regulation.”

Bill Richardson, CEO of Hawaiian Ethos, said the delays were inevitable.

“It’s inevitable that things like this take a long time because it’s such a complex effort. I don’t think people realize the complexity of building this industry from scratch,” he said. “There’s so many contingencies that make it difficult for getting this industry off the ground. (But) I’ve heard lots of sad stories (from patients). Some of them really are sad that they’ve been waiting for a legal solution for so long. We don’t want to make criminals of grandma and grandpa who have pain.”

Richard Ha, CEO of Lau Ola on Hawaii island, added, “Folks who need (the drug) because they’re recently diagnosed (with a disease), they’re in really tough shape. (But with) anything brand new, there will be bumps along the way. That’s just unavoidable.”

Earlier this month, seven of the eight dispensaries had to dodge another potential hurdle when the Hawaii Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co., known as HEMIC, announced it was dropping their workers’ compensation policies due to criminal liability concerns because marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law. Most of the dispensaries are securing new insurance coverage.

Hawaii legalized medical cannabis in 2000, but patients had no legal way to obtain the drug. There are more than 16,000 patients registered with the state. Act 241, passed in 2015, allowed the state to issue eight licenses, each allowed two production centers and two dispensaries.

A medical cannabis legislative oversight committee is scheduled to hear an industry update Wednesday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. at the state Capitol.

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