By Omar Sacirbey
Massachusetts health officials are refuting the perception that stringent marijuana testing standards are contributing to the excruciatingly slow rollout of the state’s MMJ program and preventing dispensaries from launching.
Just three dispensaries have opened their doors to patients since Massachusetts legalized medical cannabis in 2012, and each needed a waiver from the state because MMJ labs are unable to meet all the testing requirements.
Another 12 dispensaries received provisional licenses – most of them early last year – but have not yet opened. The state says these dispensaries are still working through the process of setting up their operations and getting the necessary approvals to receive a final license and open.
“The testing piece is not a reason why dispensaries haven’t been able to open,” said Scott Zoback, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the medical marijuana program.
Marc Nascarella, chief toxicologist for the state’s Department of Environmental Health, echoed that sentiment, saying he thinks the testing regulations “are achievable.”
Nevertheless, state officials said they have been reviewing the testing guidelines, and industry insiders believe that changes are on the horizon.
Addressing the issue is extremely important to the success of Massachusetts’ MMJ program, especially now that the state is vetting applications for additional cultivation/dispensary licenses from scores of companies.
Labs have said that state limits on how much lead – a naturally occurring substance – a person can be exposed to in cannabis are unrealistically strict. The limits are based on a person smoking an ounce of marijuana daily, which simply doesn’t happen.
If state numbers were based on something more realistic – say five grams daily, which is where the heaviest users would likely come in – marijuana currently being tested would be under the lead limit, said Dorian Des Lauriers, CEO of ProVerde Laboratories, one of the two cannabis testing labs.
“Under the current standards, some parts are not reasonable,” he said.
Pesticide testing is another sore point, as neither of the state’s two labs can meet the full requirements in this area. ProVerde is able to detect 16 of 18 pesticides that are banned by the state, Des Lauriers said, while the other facility – MCR Labs – is still working on its pesticide testing abilities.
These two issues – pesticides and lead exposure – were behind the state’s decision to issue waivers so that the first round of dispensaries could open.
The waivers say that compliance with the testing standards would present “undue hardship” for dispensaries and state medical marijuana patients.
Under the waivers, which are good for 90 days, the approved dispensaries are allowed to offer a maximum of 4.23 ounces of marijuana to patients every two months, while patients are instructed to consume no more than two grams per day.
Massachusetts selected 15 dispensaries to receive provisional licenses, and each must go through a two-step process to start selling to patients.
The first step – which is the most rigorous – is to get a “final certificate” that permits cultivation. The final step is approval to sell, which a dispensary receives after it has produced product, its retail facilities have been inspected and its cannabis has been tested.
Through Tuesday night, only three dispensaries had approval to both cultivate and sell marijuana: Alternative Therapies in Salem, In Good Health in Brockton, and New England Treatment Access in Northampton. Business is booming for these dispensaries, and others are extremely eager to open.
Central Ave. Compassionate Center in Ayer has its certificate to cultivate, and it is expecting approval to open its dispensary in the near future. Patriot Care Corp, which has licenses for three dispensaries, received its final certificate for cultivation last week.
Scott Churchill, the methodology and compliance officer with MCR Labs, agrees that the rules need further refinement, saying he feels regulations were made “in a vacuum.” However, he’s optimistic the situation will improve quickly.
“Getting the requirements right the first time is not easy,” Churchill said. “The health department is working with people in the industry to get this right. I think we can expect rapid changes this year and next compared to the last couple of years.”
Kris Krane, president of the cannabis consultancy 4Front Ventures, said something has to give.
“Everybody is expecting they’re going to change,” Krane said. “They’re unachievable.”
Zoback of the state health department said none of the other dispensaries with provisional licenses have asked for waivers, though they wouldn’t need to until their marijuana had been tested.
Krane expects most of the remaining dispensaries will be ready to open between early spring and autumn of next year. Assuming industry observers are correct and testing rules have changed by then, those dispensaries won’t need to ask for waivers when they open.
As of this week, there are more than 150 applications for additional business licenses, roughly half of which Krane expects will be approved. (Massachusetts has no cap on the number of dispensary licenses it can issue). Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.
The testing dilemma is not unique to Massachusetts.
Dispensaries in Nevada have also been struggling with strict limits, delaying some openings and forcing others to toss entire batches of marijuana because they exceeded state limits for pesticides, metals and other contaminants.
“There’s uncertainty everywhere,” Des Lauriers said.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]