The shelves were empty and cabinets bare as Tai Cheng led the way through the soon-to-open medical marijuana dispensary Tuesday.
Cheng, an attorney turned cannabis entrepreneur, is the chief operating officer of Aloha Green, one of three companies that won licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana in Honolulu.
The company held a media event in the lobby of its new King Street storefront to announce plans to open its doors to the public Thursday. But even though medical marijuana has been legal in Hawaii for 17 years, Aloha Green still doesn’t have approval to actually sell cannabis.
Instead, Cheng said that the dispensary will offer non-cannabis merchandise, books and educational materials and give potential patients the chance to talk with consultants, also known as “budtenders.”
Hawaii legalized medical cannabis in 2000 but only began setting up a way for patients to legally buy the drug in 2015. Dispensaries were expected to open last year, but the state Department of Health has taken a lot longer than expected to get the program off the ground.
Cheng said Aloha Green originally planned to open before Christmas and that the company has been losing more than $100,000 a month waiting for the state’s approval.
He said the company has already completed four harvests, and while it’s storing the cannabis in a secure, dark place, there’s always the risk that it could lose its flavor through oxidization.
“It’s frustrating,” Cheng said, noting that the company still has to pay rent and has 18 full-time and 20 part-time staff members.
But even though Cheng says the company is ready to start selling once the health department gives approval, the company is still figuring out the prices of its products, which are partially contingent on how much it costs to get samples tested once labs open.
The health department also needs to conduct an inspection of the retail facility once the products have been lab-tested.
Aloha Green originally announced May 23 that it would have a soft opening June 8 and sell products with CBD, a chemical extracted from cannabis that’s not psychoactive, unlike THC.
Cheng says he thought that would be fine since he’s seen similar products are on sale at health food stores like Down to Earth.
But a week later, the company reversed course after hearing from the health department. Keith Ridley from the department’s Office of Health Care Assurance told Civil Beat that the agency contacted Aloha Green to raise concerns about the plan.
“We still consider CBD as a derivative of marijuana,” Ridley said.
The department has made some progress in the past couple of weeks. Ridley said the agency successfully merged the state’s patient registry with traceability software that’s intended to help prevent marijuana from falling into the wrong hands.
Ridley said the agency is still expecting the dispensaries to start selling cannabis products this summer.
“Certainly by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re working very hard to get them open as quickly as possible.”
Ridley said the department is waiting for labs to submit data by the end of the week showing that their testing produces consistent, accurate results.
Dana Ciccone from Steep Hill Hawaii, one of the Oahu labs seeking certification, said that the department has improved its communication with labs over the past couple weeks and hopes that his lab can start testing products June 15.
Michael Rollins, who runs PharmLabs Hawaii on Maui, said that the lab started provisional testing of samples last week with Pono Life Sciences, one of the Maui medical cannabis companies. But Rollins is still concerned about getting details regarding how to transport lab samples between islands. Ridley said that the agency is working on that procedure.
Both Ciccone and Rollins are hoping to get more answers during a legislative working group meeting Wednesday.
Cheng from Aloha Green is also eager for more updates. The delay in getting the medical marijuana program up and running was a recurrent theme Tuesday as more than three dozen people crowded into the lobby of the King Street store.
It was an early glimpse into what a local dispensary will look like, but for some attendees, it may be the last. Once the store starts selling marijuana, only patients with medical cannabis cards will be able to enter.
The space feels like a pharmacy, with a reception desk, waiting area and a square transparent window through which patients can communicate with employees within the restricted area.
Security is tight. On Tuesday, a grey metal detector sat in a corner and the head of security asked journalists not to photograph the metal detector and security cameras dotting the ceiling.
Photos and videos weren’t allowed past the lobby, for both security reasons and in accordance with state law restricting image-taking. An ATM was still wrapped in plastic and black TV screens were blank. Cheng explained that eventually menus and products will fill the dark brown displays, and that budtenders will serve patients on a one-to-one basis.
Staff members wearing black clothing, gray aprons and gold name tags stood smiling behind the empty counters. Among them was Amanda Gull, 34, who used to work in a California dispensary and said that the level of security at Aloha Green far exceeded that of her former employer.
“We want the public to come in to see that we’re not some dark and scary place,” Cheng said, noting that opening the doors “gives patients hope” and helps demystify dispensaries for those who haven’t seen them before.
But Aloha Green’s decision is also a message to the health department.
“It forces the state to make a decision on how they want the program to work,” Cheng said.