AKRON — Decoding that funky smell isn’t something the state requires of medical marijuana testing labs.
“But the whole goal is to give our customer an overall picture of their product,” said Matt Wagner, a senior chemist at North Coast Testing Laboratories LLC in Streetsboro, the first lab approved by the state to test the inaugural crops of medicinal marijuana in Ohio.
Along with terpenes (which produce that vaguely piney smell) and cannabinoids (which render medicinal benefits), “a lot of customers like to see what their trichomes look like. It’s one way to check the maturity of the plant,” Wagner said.
Last employed as a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic, Wagner never imagined he’d be sloshing green mixtures of marijuana and methanol in beakers or squinting at microscopic images of buds that resemble speckled Christmas trees covered in oily droplets at a high magnification. Since the first samples arrived Tuesday through an airlock at the highly secured and state-monitored lab, the senior chemist has grown accustomed to the smell. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the excitement.
“There’s over 100 cannabinoids,” Wagner said in awe of the known and unknown properties of THC, CDB, their derivatives and the dozens of chemicals packed in these tiny buds.
The long wait is almost over for supporters of medical marijuana in Ohio.
After months of delays, the first batches of medical cannabis are expected to be sold this week to approved patients.
The state initially wanted marijuana products available in dispensaries by September. But thanks to delays, the state’s cannabis growers didn’t get started until last summer, and marijuana takes months to cultivate.
Wagner and his colleagues in molecular microbiology and analytic chemistry are the last piece in Ohio’s medical marijuana puzzle. The leafy, dry marijuana they’re testing — intended for vaping until processing plants start churning out oils, edibles and other products — should start shipping from some cultivators at rates of 750 pounds every three weeks. Buckeye Relief in Eastlake, AT-CPC in Akron and three others in Ohio have already harvested at least one crop.
Smaller scale growers are pheno-hunting, tinkering with various cannabis strains and grow methods to perfect their practice and product. Their shipments can include as many as 50 different phenotypes to be tested, not just for pesticides, moisture and microbial bacteria but boutique characteristics like the nuanced flavors of the craft brewing revolution.
For now, CY+ of Pennsylvania owns the only of 56 Ohio dispensaries approved to open this week, just outside Steubenville.
What’s the holdup?
Though nearly operational, Ohio’s medical marijuana program is far from fully functional as companies in the trade push to get more growing, processing, testing and dispensing operations over myriad hurdles and final state inspections.
Some are ready to go, just waiting for feedback from the state.
Jeff Nemeth, chief executive officer of ACT Laboratories Inc., said his Toledo testing facility should be ready later this month. Another in Hocking College opened Wednesday.
After Pennsylvania and Illinois, Ohio is a third emerging medical marijuana market for Nemeth, who said delays and low-supply are common until newly created companies gain steam and get comfortable with regulations. “It’s the same growing pains,” Nemeth said. “I know everyone has been patient, but I also know everyone has been working as fast as possible.”
It’s been an especially painful wait for patients. Susan Ganz, 68, of Newcomerstown in rural Tuscarawas County is living with chronic pain as deep as the rod surgically inserted in the left side of her neck and back. She’s built up a tolerance to opioids, which have put thousands of Ohioans on addictive — and potentially deadly — paths. And she’s tried cannabis, which eased the agony and calmed her muscle spasms.
In late November, her certified medical marijuana doctor put her name in for a medical marijuana card. He informed her that no dispensaries were open at the time, already a month after state law said all aspects of the industry were to be fully operational.
The CY+ dispensary near Stuebenville is about an hour drive from Ganz’s home, where she’s been eagerly monitoring 20 of the closest dispensaries with provisional state licensing. “There’s no phone numbers on these sites, so it’s go knock on the door and see,” she said. “It wasn’t organized very well.”
The handful of medical marijuana businesses on the cusp of opening pin the delayed rollout on missed construction deadlines, local zoning disputes, a state lawsuit by companies denied state licenses, last-minute inspections and other issues that come naturally to a heavily regulated market built from the ground up.
“It’s coming,” said Dr. Matt Noyes, a surgeon who founded Fire Rock Ltd. to open a grow site on Home Avenue near Chapel Hill mall. A nearby dispensary also remains under construction north of Howe Avenue on Buchholzer Boulevard.
“The delay has nothing to do with the state,” Noyes said of his cultivation business. “It has nothing to do with us. It’s like building a home. Dealing with construction has been the most difficult part of the process.”
Representatives of Greenleaf Apothecaries said a dispensary at 3840 Greentree Ave. SW in Canton passed its state inspection and is awaiting a certificate of operation. Greenleaf expects to open this week. The company’s Akron location, which was opposed by city planners because of its proximity to downtown entertainment, was delayed by the conditional zoning process.
Greenleaf and other dispensary operators will have trouble keeping shelves stocked. And the early product is expected to be straight plant material. “We expect that problem will solve itself as more processors come online,” said Katie Nelson of Greenleaf Apothecaries.