Ohio's medical marijuana industry is more tightly regulated than any other type of business in the Buckeye State, and industry insiders say that regulation has delayed the opening of many dispensaries.
Four months after dispensaries were officially allowed to sell marijuana in Ohio, only 18 of the 56 dispensaries that were granted provisional licenses have been given operating licenses. No dispensaries in Summit County had received an operating license as of last week.
The resulting lack of competition is one of many factors contributing to high-priced products, said Mary Jane Borden, co-founder of the Ohio Rights Group, which advocates for medicinal cannabis users. The expense could send some patients to the illegal market, she said.
Some of the delay stems from the fledgling industry's growing pains, industry experts said. But many also said that the stringent application process is largely to blame. Before dispensaries acquire their operating licenses, they must show the Ohio Board of Pharmacy that their operations follow the plans outlined in their application to the letter.
"A big selling point was that we were going to have solar panels on the roof," said Bobby George, who owns Rise, a chain of five dispensaries in Ohio. The pharmacy board "made sure we did it."
Rise opened two dispensaries, in Toledo and Lorain, on May 1, and its three others have provisional licenses.
George said the industry needs to open dispensaries at a faster pace, but he doesn't begrudge state officials for making sure that dispensary owners stick to the pledges in their applications.
"Their job is to manage the process," he said.
State officials say dispensaries receive extra scrutiny because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
"There need to be safeguards in place," said Ali Simon, public and policy affairs liaison for the pharmacy board. "Patient safety is crucial to us."
Some cannabis industry representatives say the state is taking those safeguards to an unnecessary level.
"I would say the problem rests with the micromanagement and overzealous regulations and controls," said Tim Johnson, co-founder of the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the medical cannabis industry. "Let the market work."
Bob Bridges, a patient advocate and member of the state Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, said Ohio's cannabis industry is being unfairly over-regulated. Liquor stores, which also sell an intoxicating substance, and pharmacies, which also sell medication, have far fewer hoops to jump through, he said.
"It's not like reinventing the wheel," Bridges said. "We have pharmacies in Ohio. There are (rules and regulations) to go on already."
Some dispensary owners wrote in their applications that they would hire employees trained in states with existing medical marijuana programs, not realizing how difficult that pledge would be to fulfill, said Brian Wingfield, who owns the Ohio Cannabis Co. dispensary in Coshocton, which opened in March.
"You have to get your employees hired, licensed in Ohio, then licensed in that other state, and then send them to that other state for training, and bring them back for your inspection," Wingfield said.
State officials warned dispensary owners early in the process not to put anything in their application if they couldn't make it happen, he added.
Simon said that any changes by dispensaries to the plans outlined in their application need the approval of the pharmacy board, and they must cite a valid reason for their proposed changes.
Additionally, licenses are limited, and unlike pharmacies, dispensaries go through a competitive approval process, Simon said. Holding dispensaries to the promises made in their applications kept the process fair, she said.
Reach Patrick Cooley at email@example.com or @PatrickACooley.