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Medical marijuana transition off to a rough start

Merging medical marijuana into the recreational pot industry in Washington state is making for a rough transition.

“It’s not as smooth as one would hope, but nothing about being a trailblazer is easy. It’s all about adaptability,” said Danielle Rosellison, co-owner of Trail Blazin’ Productions, a marijuana grower in Bellingham.

Medical marijuana businesses face some big challenges. Users are leery of being entered into a state database, and patients are balking at high costs that now include a 37 percent excise tax. Also, labs are not yet in place to fully test medical marijuana, and some consider state Department of Health requirements for medical-grade cannabis to be onerous.

Rosellison is part of The Cannabis Alliance, an effort to organize the medical marijuana industry so it has a united voice locally and statewide.

“All hope is not lost. We will get there,” she said. “Medical’s standards in Washington will be raised and patients’ needs will be met. It’s just not going to be timely, and there will be this murky period for the next few years.”

Medical marijuana, which had been largely unregulated, is being combined with the regulated recreational pot industry, which state voters created by approving Initiative 502 in 2012.

Dispensaries that didn’t, or couldn’t, get approval from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board to sell medical marijuana were required to close by July 1, the date for the public rollout for the combined systems. That was when businesses could sell both recreational and medical.

Seventeen businesses in Whatcom County have received the OK from the state board to sell medical marijuana, most of them recreational pot stores.

Among them is 2020 Solutions, which has two recreational pot stores. Both have received medical endorsements from the state.

Aaron Nelson, senior vice president of operations for 2020 Solutions, said at least 10 employees have gone through state-required training to be medical marijuana consultants, which allows them, in part, to enter patients’ information into a database, to create medical marijuana cards for patients, and to help patients select products. They are not allowed to give medical advice.

To have access to medical marijuana, patients still must have certain qualifying conditions including cancer and Crohn’s disease and get their health care practitioner to approve use.

As of Friday, July 15, a total of 69 stores — out of 341 with medical endorsements — in the state had a medical marijuana consultant on staff and were issuing recognition cards.

A total of 1,665 patient cards have been issued for adults so far and two for minors, according to the state Department of Health.

Nelson said the stores were as ready as could be expected.

But he said getting products that meet the state definition of what is medically compliant has been a challenge. Labs didn’t ramp up in time to test for heavy metals and microtoxins because those rules weren’t finalized until recently, Nelson said. Products already on the shelves have been tested for potency, molds and other contaminants.

“We are working very diligently with our suppliers to get product that is compliant as soon as it’s available,” Nelson said. “We’re committed to taking care of patients through this transition.”

Rosellison said no labs are certified to test for all of the requirements yet.

“And certainly not one lab that could do all of it, so now you’re sending multiple samples to multiple labs, which just increases the cost to the patient even more,” she said. “The whole thing is so frustrating.”

The Cannabis Alliance, which Rosellison is part of, recently surveyed growers and found that 61 percent said they produce marijuana that could qualify as medical grade.

But less than 17 percent said they would have cannabis that met state’s rules ready by the July 1 deadline.

Rosellison called the Department of Health’s rules “onerous” and, as a result, her Trail Blazin’ shop won’t get medically certified at this time.

Her concerns include the state requirement that growers destroy an entire harvest if it comes back contaminated in any way.

“If you’re an outdoor farmer, what if the wind brings pesticides from a nearby apple orchard? If you’re an indoor farmer, what if the bud that I randomly pick was touching the wall of the room, which just got cleaned with cleaner, and thus fails? What if the lab gets a false positive, which definitely happens? Most growers would go under if they had to destroy an entire harvest,” she said.

Todd Russell’s medical marijuana dispensary on James Street in Bellingham was among the few to make the transition, able to get both a recreational license and an endorsement under the new state rules.

“The transition from medical to recreational was a very expensive endeavor. It was essentially like starting a new business,” Russell said.

It started as medical marijuana collective named Healthy Living Center. They changed the name to Herbal Legends Cannabis after getting a state license and can now sell both recreational and medical marijuana.

He said patients were confused by the changes, including having their name in the state database even if it’s voluntary.