Hawaii allows first lab to begin testing medical marijuana

FILE - In this file Feb. 17, 2016, photo, plants grow at the home of Jeremy Nickle, owner of Hawaiian Holy Smokes, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Hawaii has approved its first laboratory to begin testing samples of medical marijuana. On Monday, July 31, 2017, the state Department of Health certified Honolulu-based lab Steep Hill Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marina Riker, File)

HONOLULU — Hawaii approved its first laboratory to begin testing samples of medical marijuana 17 years after use of the drug was legalized in the state.

On Monday, the state Department of Health certified Honolulu-based lab Steep Hill Hawaii. That brings Hawaii closer to the long-awaited date when dispensaries can sell their products.

Hawaii was among the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 2000. But the state didn't legalize dispensaries until 2015, leaving about 17,000 patients to grow or obtain the drug on their own.

Then medical marijuana dispensaries began opening in Hawaii this summer, but they could not sell their products because the state had not certified any labs to conduct the required testing. So they conducted outreach instead.

"This is a big milestone, and it couldn't have come any sooner, because many people within the industry were getting frustrated and a little angry at the time it has taken to get to this point," said state Sen. Will Espero, a Democrat. "But now that we are here, hopefully the next phase in terms of sales will happen quickly and everything will go smoothly."

Once the lab receives samples, it will take about four days to test and return products to dispensaries for sale, said Dana Ciccone, owner of Steep Hill Hawaii.

Then the dispensary will undergo one final inspection by the Department of Health with the product present, department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said. That on-site inspection and accompanying paperwork could take 24 to 48 hours, she said.

Steep Hill worked tirelessly over the past year to receive certification so patients could finally access safe, legal cannabis, Ciccone said in an email. "Today is a big step in the right direction for Hawaii's Medical Cannabis industry," he said.

The product at Honolulu-based dispensary Aloha Green has been ready for months, and dispensary CEO James H.Q. Lee said he hopes to begin the lab testing process Tuesday.

"We've been waiting, so that's very good news. I think the patients will be happy," Lee said.

But Lee still has questions about what size sample to prepare, and he hasn't gotten a definitive answer from the Department of Health, he said.

Maui Grown Therapies also is ready to begin testing its product, said Teri Freitas Gorman, director of community relations and patient affairs at the dispensary.

"We've been waiting for this day for quite some time, and now that it's here it's very exciting news for us," she said. "Being on a neighbor island, there's a little bit of a logistical hurdle that we have to overcome, but we'll overcome it."

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