Medical marijuana will trickle out in Ohio this week


The first crop of Alfred Packer marijuana plants being grown at Grow Ohio, a marijuana growing facility set among the hills of Muskingum County, is about three inches high. The plants are expected to ready for harvest in January 2019. [Doral Chenoweth III/The Columbus Dispatch]
 

Drs. Drew Kowalewsky, left, and Louis Bowman have been hired to work in the Upper Arlington office of Ohio Green Team, which does only medical-marijuana recommendations. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]
 
The state’s long-simmering medical-marijuana program, authorized by the legislature in 2016, will record the first legal sale of cannabis in Ohio sometime this week, probably in a suburb of Steubenville in Jefferson County.

“We’re very, very close,” said Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Association of Ohio, a trade association.

Although sales will begin this week, it will be months before the program’s cultivators, processors, testing labs and dispensaries fully join the supply chain. The initial quantities of marijuana will be small, the dispensaries selling it few, and the supply spotty for weeks, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.

Due to a lack of processors ready to operate, the only form of cannabis available at the start will be dried flower — the stuff you might be familiar with if you have ever smoked a joint (or saw someone doing it). In Ohio, though, smoking marijuana remains illegal, so patients would have to vape the dried flower using vape pens.

No one knows how many buyers will show up for the first medical-marijuana sales. Although demand for cannabis is inching up, it isn’t large so far. A little more than 3,500 Ohioans have medical-marijuana cards, and almost 5,000 have received doctor recommendations, but those numbers are expected to explode.
 

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“A mature market is in the 200,000 range,” Rosenberger said. “It will take a few years to get there.”

It will also take months for the dozens of cultivators, processors, testing labs and 56 state dispensaries — including five in Franklin County — to settle into a steady rhythm.

“We’re literally days away, and that’s very exciting,” said Alex Thomas, executive director of the Ohio Medical Marijuana License Holder Coalition, a trade group for cultivators, processors and dispensaries. “People should be aware that for the first few weeks, the supply will be limited in a number of ways, but all of the pieces are finally in place from the supply-chain standpoint.”

The processors — a host of facilities that will take marijuana-plant parts and create pills, tinctures, oils, vape cartridges and edibles — are the engine for real growth in the medical-marijuana market. Vaping dried flowers is not expected to be particularly popular.

Capsules and edibles have been the most popular products in other states that have some form of legalized marijuana, Jeremy Unruh, a spokesman for PharmaCann, told The Dispatch late last year. PharmaCann is building a cultivation facility at Buckeye Lake and operates cannabis businesses in several other states.

No approved processor has a license to operate in Ohio. Just 14 processors had gained state approval, out of a possible 40, before the state awarded 13 more on Wednesday. The state also plans to hand out 13 more approvals in the weeks to come, according to Mark Hamlin, who is leading the medical-marijuana effort at the Department of Commerce.

“Having any medical marijuana is better than none,” Thomas said, “but I think you’ll see a pretty rapid expansion in the amount of products available and the access to it as dispensaries and processors come online.”

Dispensaries are another question mark for the program. The state’s lone operational dispensary is CY+ in Wintersville, near Steubenville. The next dispensary to open probably will be in Sandusky. It is unlikely that any of the dispensaries approved for Franklin County will open this month, although Harvest of Ohio at 2950 N. High St. is the furthest along.

Corey Poches, the managing partner of Verdant Creations, which will have dispensaries in Columbus, Cincinnati, Newark, Marion and Chillicothe, said its Columbus location — on Cassady Avenue — won’t be ready until May or June.

Verdant Creations, owned by the Hondros family, known for Hondros College and other businesses, will open its first store in Cincinnati, probably in March. The Newark, Marion and Chillicothe locations are expected to follow in that order. Zoning and construction requirements — the company chose to build most of its stores — have slowed the process, Poches said.

“We’re excited to get open,” Poches said, “but we don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver.”

Given that just one dispensary is operational, Poches thinks Verdant Creations is not as far behind as he had worried it was. Opening a little later this year also might help the company’s dispensaries avoid some of the early inventory issues that the state expects.

“We want to do it right,” Poches said, “and we’ve taken the time to figure it out.”

Thomas and Rosenberger think the development of dispensaries will speed up once the supply chain kicks into gear. There isn’t much reason to open before there is a decent customer base and inventory to stock on shelves.

The customer base is where doctors and the state’s patient registry come into play. The 3,500-plus Ohioans with medical-marijuana cards represent a little more than 1 percent of Ohio’s market potential. One reason for the low number is that only several hundred doctors in the state are certified to recommend medical marijuana. Another reason is that the program is new, and it takes time for people to warm to legal marijuana.

“Ohio has gotten a good start, but that number does need to grow,” Rosenberger said of the numbers of doctors and patients in the system. “We are pretty on the mark, though. Nothing that has happened in Ohio hasn’t happened” in other states that legalized medical marijuana.

One local success story on the patient/doctor front is Ohio Green Team, which opened a medical-marijuana office in Upper Arlington last year. The office does nothing but medical-marijuana recommendations. Brandon Durbin and Ryan Brown opened the office and recruited a pair of local doctors to staff it because they saw a niche that almost no one else had filled.

Ohio Green Team has 400 to 500 patients with medical-marijuana cards, more than 10 percent of the state’s total. Brown said most of the clients live in central Ohio, but he has seen people come from just about every corner of the state. Durbin and Brown plan to add three to five more doctors this year and open offices in Cleveland, Springfield and Carroll.

Brown said that a lot of doctors have approached Green Team, but most are in a “wait and see” mode and haven’t committed to recommending medical marijuana.

Brown said he also screens for doctors who are looking to make a quick buck.

“They all believe they will have patients flooding in, but lack marketing and networking,” Brown said. “That stuff is really hard and costs money.”

Brown and Durbin spend a lot of time educating patients about the system, what they need to bring to an appointment, and how to obtain medical marijuana once it is available. They stress that people interested in it should educate themselves as much as possible, especially in the days before dispensaries are loaded with hundreds of products.

“For first-time patients, it is going to be overwhelming,” Durbin said.

He recommends a few websites to help people get up to speed. Leafly.com is the Yelp of medical marijuana, Durbin said, collating reviews and effects of various products and strains, which have colorful names such as Sour Diesel, Bruce Banner, Chemdog, Train Wreck, Bubba Kush, God’s Gift and Grape Ape. Weedmaps.com can help people find dispensaries near them. Marijuanadoctors.com is a resource for finding doctors.

Brown stresses that consumers should not be intimidated. If you are 18 or older, have a working email address, and have proof of a history of one of the 21 conditions — examples are glaucoma, seizures, chronic pain, Crohn’s disease or cancer — plus an Ohio driver’s license, state-issued identification card or a passport, you are good to go. Details are available on the state Medical Marijuana Control Program website.

Patients receiving a recommendation often get their acceptance email from the state while still in the Green Team lobby, Brown said.

“It is a lot easier to get a medical-marijuana card than it is to get plates on your car,” he said.
 
 
J D Malone, The Columbus Dispatch, January 12, 2019
Medical marijuana will trickle out in Ohio this week