A nondescript white building is under construction on Artino Street in Oberlin, testament to the delays that have pushed back sales of medicinal marijuana across Ohio.
The state’s Sept. 8 deadline to begin putting legal pot in the hands of patients came and went over the weekend, but with no effect.
When Ohio House Bill 523 legalized medicinal marijuana in 2016, it specified that the program should be open for eligible patients two years after it was passed.
Yet no dispensaries are open in Ohio and the first large-scale grower only received final state authorization in late July.
Buckeye Relief of Eastlake posted on its website that seeds planted in August should be ready to harvest in December. Plants can take 12 to 16 weeks to grow.
Fadi Boumitri, a Cleveland-based lawyer who was awarded the only cultivation license for Lorain County, owns that nondescript building in Oberlin.
His company, Ascension BioMedical, received planning commission approval in April to build a 15,000-square-foot greenhouse, office, and warehouse to operate in the Oberlin Industrial Park.
He feels his business wasn’t given enough time to meet Saturday’s “very ambitious” deadline.
Boumitri said that as with any budding industry or construction project, there have been hurdles and barricades. Medicinal marijuana in Ohio is no different.
“This is nothing that we never expected,” Boumitri said. “Every single license holder, when we were told the deadline, we looked at it and said, ‘Uh… I don’t think we’re going to get this done in nine months.’ But we’ve worked very diligently. We’ve overpaid for a lot of things to get them done faster.”
A stalled bureaucratic process, difficulties obtaining licenses, and a learning curve all delayed getting medical marijuana in the hands of patients before the statutory deadline, he said.
That also applies to dispensaries where pot can be legally sold.
One is located on the Lorain-Amherst border at 1920 Cooper Foster Park Road, a former bank now owned by Amherst Plaza LLC, according to county auditor’s records.
GTI Ohio LLC, also known as Green Thumb Industries, a venture headed by Clevleand entrepreneur Bobby George, will run the dispensary. It’s worth noting that once up and operating, it will kick cash to the Amherst school system.
But as of Friday, the site does not appear to be ready for business — empty inside and the cracked asphalt of the parking lot taken over by weeds.
It is one of three dispensaries that will eventually serve Lorain, Medina, Holmes, and Wayne counties. The others are at 603 Cleveland St. and 709 Sugar Ln. in Elyria.
As of Friday, they do not appear anywhere near ready to serve customers with legal marijuana prescriptions.
In fact, out of 56 dispensaries certified to sell medical marijuana in Ohio, none are in operation yet.
Why the delay?
State lawmakers passed a plan in May 2016 to legalize medical marijuana for patients who receive a doctor’s referral.
The task of making rules and regulations surrounding cultivation and sales was left to the Ohio Department of Commerce, the State Board of Pharmacy, and the Medical Board of Ohio.
At the end of July last year, the Department of Commerce received 185 applications for licenses, with winners being announced in November, which Boumitri said was too late in the year to begin construction.
“The state gave us our licenses right before winter so we had a three- to four-month dead zone. Once the weather broke, it was nothing but rain in May and June, so pouring foundations was pretty much impossible,” he said.
So far, three of the state’s 26 licensed cultivators have the green light to start growing product.
Only seven processors have been licensed, while six more licenses are awaiting background and tax compliance checks.
The state expects to license up to 40 processors.
The state has approved 222 doctors who have received the requisite training to approve use of the drug.
In our coverage areas, the list includes Corie Kovach and Ann Dorobek of Amherst. Nearby are Cynthia Dietrich of Avon Lake, Heidi Lencoski of Avon Lake, and Mohammed Ahmad of Avon.
However, not all health care employers intend to allow their physicians to prescribe medical marijuana, even those certified by the state to do so.
As for the potential patients, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy has yet to open an online registry.
Boumitri said it’s disheartening to know how many people are anxiously waiting for this program to relieve various ailments.
When he’s not at the site directing various contractors, he’s behind the scenes registering employees and getting insurance. He had hoped to receive the state’s approval by Aug. 1.
“I wish I could make this construction finish. I’ve spent every moment of my time on this since December. I’ve been working on this for almost two years to get this vision and dream up and running and it hasn’t been enough,” Boumitri said.
The medical marijuana industry is untreaded territory for Ohio, he said, and it’s not as simple as just throwing up a building. Every step of the process has to be specifically tailored to the state’s wants and needs.
“So I think that’s been the hold-up,” Boumitri said. “How do you get all these things in line and get all of the contractors in place to actually get things done? Unfortunately, it’s been a true test to get people where they say they’ll be and get them to do what they say they’ll be doing.”
Oberlin’s building official, Tom Hall, said quite a bit of work still needs to be done on the inside of the Ascension BioMedical building. As we spoke, he was looking at new designs from the architect.
Both Hall and Boumitri said the city’s inspectors have been diligent and timely in their inspections.
The State Board of Pharmacy, on its website, gives another reason for the delay.
“This time frame allows for a deliberate process to ensure the safety of the public and to promote access to a safe product,” the website says.
Who actually wants marijuana?
More Ohioans smoke pot than you may think.
About 1.2 million adults — not teens — statewide said they used marijuana within the previous 12 months, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
That’s about one in seven residents.
The Ohio Board of Pharmacy has estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Ohioans will apply for medical marijuana cards.
On the other hand, the Cincinnati Enquirer has estimated, based on its own research, that 3.5 million Ohioans would be eligible based on 21 qualifying health conditions.
Those conditions include Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, brain disorders common to veterans and athletes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, hepatitis C, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, and more.
But until medical marijuana is made available legally, many continue to use it illegally to treat their illnesses.
About 22 million people use marijuana each month in the United States, making it the country’s most common illegal drug, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Granted, many of those users have no diagnosed condition.
It might not be much longer before they don’t need to have one. In May, a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana was certified by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
The “Marijuana Rights and Regulations” amendment would allow people ages 21 and up to buy, sell, grow, and transport cannabis.
It may appear on the November 2019 ballot.
So far, 31 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, while nine states and the nation’s capital have legalized recreational marijuana.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter. Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.