State gives first nod to Oahu cannabis testing lab

Marijuana plants grow at the home of Jeremy Nickle, owner of Hawaiian Holy Smokes, in Honolulu. Hawaii has approved its first laboratory to begin testing samples of medical marijuana. On Monday, the state Department of Health certified Honolulu-based lab Steep Hill Hawaii. AP photo

An Oahu laboratory received certification Monday to begin testing medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries, opening the way for at least one Maui dispensary to begin putting its flowers, capsules and oils on the market by mid-August.

Maui Grown Therapies, one of two Maui licensed dispensaries, said Monday that medical cannabis samples from its production center are on their way to Steep Hill Hawaii Lab for mandatory testing for safety and potency. Steep Hill was granted a provisional certification by the state Department of Health after the lab passed its final onsite inspection and met other requirements.

Teri Freitas Gorman, director of community relations and patient affairs for Maui Grown Therapies, said Monday that once the samples pass the mandatory tests for heavy metals, pesticides and microbial contamination, which could take three to five days, the dispensary has to pass final retail inspection by the Health Department.

Once the lab-tested products are returned to the dispensary, the Health Department will observe a rehearsal of a sale, check security programs and make sure the dispensary is in compliance with regulations, she said. Freitas Gorman could not say how long it would take for inspectors to come to its Maui Lani facility or for the Health Department to issue a notice to proceed, but said that the department has been “very responsive.”

If all goes well, Freitas Gorman said, the dispensary could be open to sell medical marijuana in the next couple of weeks and “maybe sooner.”

An official with Maui’s other licensed dispensary, Pono Life Sciences, said the company is “thrilled that Steep Hill received its certification.” Michael Takano, chief executive officer of Pono Life, said Monday that his company is coordinating with Steep Hill to get medical marijuana to the lab but that there are a few steps in the process.

Takano was not as precise as Freitas Gorman on a sales start date; he said Pono Life would begin sales “this summer.”

He said that Pono Life has worked with all three labs seeking certification, including Kahului-based PharmLabs Hawaii. In late May, Pono Life worked with PharmLabs on a test transport of 2 grams and three strains of cannabis from its production facility to the Kahului lab for testing.

“We would love to have multiple labs,” Takano said, saying it would be good for the dispensaries and the patients.

Michael Rollins, chief administrative officer of PharmLabs and a part owner of the company, said Monday that “we are quite shocked by the news” of the certification of Steep Hill. He believed the Health Department was “feeling the pressure” to move the medical marijuana dispensary process along and “hastily” made a decision.

“There is no structure,” he said.

The decision to certify one lab may have created a monopoly, Rollins said. He said the idea was to have labs on every island to service the eight dispensaries, but dispensaries that send their product to the Oahu lab may be grandfathered in, even as other labs become certified, he said.

Also, the Health Department has not set up procedures for transporting the medical marijuana to Oahu, he said. Marijuana still is considered a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin and ecstasy, by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, so strict controls are required even for medical marijuana.

Rollins said PharmLabs’ certification has been delayed by a missing component in its heavy metals testing machine. The part had to be shipped in from the Mainland and has delayed the process by five weeks.

“The laboratory successfully passed its final onsite inspection and met requirements that demonstrate it has the capacity and proficiency to test cannabis and manufactured cannabis in compliance with state law,” the Health Department said in its news release.

To receive certification, a laboratory must submit validation studies to demonstrate it is capable of conducting testing with consistent and accurate results for the marijuana’s composition, including THC, which produces the high; heavy metals, such as arsenic; pesticides; solvents; moisture content; microbial contaminants; bacteria and pathogens; dangerous molds that can cause infection and disease and toxins produced by molds, the Health Department said.

“Certification follows a rigorous scientific process that requires meticulous attention to detail and constant refining to ensure product and patient safety,” said Chris Whelen, chief of the Health Department’s State Laboratories Division.

He added that the division is “currently working closely with two other private independent labs to help them obtain certification. They are continuing to submit or resubmit their validation studies for certification.”

Keith Ridley, chief of the Health Department’s Office of Health Care Assurance who oversees the medical cannabis dispensary program, said that the department realizes that patients, caregivers and licensed dispensaries have been waiting for a lab to be operational.

“This is a major step forward as it allows the dispensaries to now begin testing their products to sell to qualified patients,” said Ridley.

Maui Grown Therapies plans to begin selling flowers, capsules and oil concentrates and expand offerings later, said Freitas Gorman. The plan is to hold a soft opening for a week or two and serve only patients who have registered with them by appointment with no walk-ins, she said.

The dispensary wants to make sure the staff, patients and neighbors in the Maui Lani Village Center “have a good experience with us beginning operations,” she said. “We are going to take it slow.”

Maui Grown Therapies has registered nearly 300 patients through open houses since April. There are almost 4,000 registered medical marijuana patients on Maui.

Freitas Gorman said that Maui Grown Therapies’ campaign to hire quality workers through advertisements has gone well. In the tight labor market, about 500 people applied for 20 jobs.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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