Hawaii residents who have been waiting 16 years for a legal place to buy medical marijuana will have to wait at least several more months.
But as of next week, their medicine can start growing.
The state Department of Health said Tuesday it’s ready to connect its seed-to-sale tracking software with the programs used by the eight companies that received licenses to grow and sell medial marijuana. It plans to do so Feb. 1.
It’s a milestone that will allow most of the licensees to start cultivating cannabis. State law says the plants must be tracked from seeds to the point of sale, so approval to start growing marijuana was delayed until now.
Brian Goldstein, chief executive officer of Manoa Botanicals, estimates that the cultivation process alone might take about five months.
“But that assumes everything goes perfectly,” Goldstein said Tuesday. His company has a nursery on the west side of Oahu and plans to open a dispensary near Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but patients had to grow their own plants or find a caregiver who could help. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Legislature decided to legalize dispensaries.
Legislators exempted the Department of Health from the normally required rulemaking to expedite the process. The agency awarded eight licenses to companies in April and authorized them to open their doors as of July. Some owners said publicly that they hoped to open by the end of 2016.
That hasn’t happened.
One reason has been the long process of getting the state’s seed-to-sale tracking software program up and running. The state awarded a contract in November to BioTrackTHC, a company that’s worked on similar dispensary programs on the mainland.
“It is unfortunate that it’s taken so long because we were really hoping that it could get started last year,” said state Sen. Will Espero, who helped to write the dispensary law. “It’s good to see the department is on the right track at this moment at least.”
On Tuesday, Keith Ridley, chief of the health department’s Office of Health Care Assurance, suggested the Legislature’s July 2016 goal of opening dispensaries was not practical.
“The time frames that were put into statute were highly, highly aggressive and probably not agreeable with reality,” he said.
During a recent budget hearing for the health department at the Capitol, state Sen. Roz Baker from Maui said she was dissatisfied with the department’s slow pace on setting up the medical marijuana infrastructure.
“There have been so many glitches along the way,” Baker said “I have been concerned that you don’t have the capacity, will, whatever, to make this happen.
Health Department Director Virginia Pressler responded that the program is a high priority.
Teri Freitas Gorman, spokeswoman for Maui Wellness Group, said the delay in setting up the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system has been costly for the company. The company, which is planning to open a dispensary in Kahului, has had to cut staff hours and defer hiring for key positions.
Ridley did not cite any specific reasons for the delay in setting up the software program.
“The challenge is that this is the first time something of this nature has been done here,” he said.
Gorman and Goldstein said they’re excited that the Department of Health is ready to begin implementing the software program and said their companies will be ready to start growing cannabis once they get approval.
“I’m not surprised that it’s taken the Department of Health some time to get to where it is,” Goldstein said. “And now that we’ve hit this big milestone, I’m hopeful that the department will be able to reach the next critical milestone, which will allow us to test (the product) and then sell.”
The health department still has work to do before cultivation begins at some dispensaries. It needs to conduct training of its own staff and licensees, as well as test the software program, something that should happen within the next week.
The department also is working on making sure that the system can connect to the state’s existing patient registry. That’s important to verify whether purchasers have received medical marijuana cards, and to ensure they don’t buy more cannabis than the legal limit. Ridley estimated that process could take two to three months.
The agency has identified two laboratories that would test the cannabis and needs to work with those labs to make sure that they meet all requirements and are certified, Ridley said.
In addition, one dispensary licensee is still waiting for a certificate from the Narcotics Enforcement Division, Ridley noted. The department must also conduct final inspections of the dispensaries’ facilities where the product will be grown.
Ridley said that while half of the licensees are ready or nearly ready to begin cultivation — including Manoa Botanicals, Maui Wellness, Aloha Green and Pono Life Sciences — the others may not begin growing until this spring or even this summer.
Still, Ridley said he’s confident that dispensaries will open sometime this year. Goldstein and Gorman hope that’s true.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and I could tell you,” Gorman said.