The wait for weed in Ohio continues.
Prospective medical marijuana patients are less than 100 days away from the Sept. 8 date that state law says they should be able to receive the product. Those involved in the fledgling industry are up against the clock, and some are increasingly concerned that they might not make that deadline.
Cultivators, processors, testing facilities, doctors and patients provide a lot of moving parts that must be ready to roll come September. With three state agencies overseeing the program and granting licenses, inevitable kinks in the process are still being worked out.
The law gives patients 21 and older suffering from a list of 21 severe medical conditions, such as cancer and Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s diseases, the ability to purchase and possess up to a 90-day supply of medical marijuana with the recommendation from a certified doctor.
The cannabis is to be available only in the form of oils, creams and patches for topical use, edibles and "plant material," or flower, solely for the use of vaporizing. The law does not allow marijuana to be smoked or grown at home.
The program must be "fully operational" by early September, according to the state’s Medical Marijuana Control Program website. But state officials say that means only that a minimal amount of some form of medical marijuana must be available by then.
"I don’t think there is a lot of confidence in that Sept. 8 date. If there is not a seed in the ground right now, you can speed up the permit process and build 24 hours a day, but the only thing you can’t speed up is Mother Nature," said Bob Bridges, the patient advocate on the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee.
For cultivators, the only way to speed up the process is to plant a cutting from an existing cannabis plant rather than starting with a seed. That short-cuts the germination process, but it still takes eight to 12 weeks to mature.
Bridges is one of 14 members of the committee, tasked with advising the three state agencies involved with the program, appointed with approval by Gov. John Kasich.
"Patients are very, very concerned product won’t be ready," Bridges said. "Overwhelming, the concern has been: ‘Is medicine going to be available Sept. 8?’"
Each component in the process is intertwined — meaning, for example, that a testing facility can’t do its job if it doesn’t have anything to test. Dispensaries — which have yet to be awarded licenses following a delay this month — can’t sell anything if they don’t have products.
For Jonathan Cachat, the delay has been frustrating. As the director of lab sciences at Hocking Technical College, he says the school is in limbo as it has waited more than seven months to receive a license to become a state-approved testing facility.
"We are told that we will hear at the end of May, but it's hard to put any credence or trust into any of the recommendations or deadlines they (the state) set because they always miss them."
Cachat approached Hocking Tech in August about helping it become a testing facility, and then was hired by the college to run its lab. The law originally said a public college had to test the product for the first year, and state officials later said that private labs also could test medical marijuana.
The lab licenses are expected in the coming weeks, said Stephanie Gostomski, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Commerce, which will award licenses to cultivators, processors and testing facilities.
Cachat said that if a cultivator can provide a flower to test by August, the lab would have enough time to get products on the shelf by September. Cachat said the problem with hitting the deadline is not with the cultivators or the testing labs, but with dispensaries and processors being ready.
The Ohio Pharmacy Board canceled Wednesday’s special meeting to announce the 57 dispensary locations because it had not yet verified applicants' minimum requirements, such as background checks, according to spokesman Cameron McNamee. The dispensaries are scheduled to be announced in early June.
"We have always said this entire time that it is a very tight process and a very tight deadline, but most importantly, we need to do things right," Gostomski said. "By doing it right, the focus is on the patients getting a safe product. The next couple weeks will be very telling in terms of having product on the shelf."
Alex Thomas is the spokesman for the Ohio Medical Marijuana License Holder Coalition and represents a majority of the growers. As of Friday, he said that no cultivators he knows had planted yet.
"We acknowledge that we are on a tight timeline here, but our members are working day and night to get facilities up and running," Thomas said, adding that Sept. 8 remains the target.
But Bridges is skeptical. With virtually all parties involved still awaiting the green light, a lot has to come together in a short period of time.