Two in 5 patients are allowed but have yet to buy medical marijuana as more than half of Ohio's dispensaries are still not open.

The Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program, a coalition of state regulatory agencies that oversee and approve licenses, warned last year that it could take all of 2019 and some of 2020 before there would be enough operational marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries to reach every patient in Ohio. Eight months after the first store opened in January, dispensary deserts cover large swaths around Cincinnati, Akron, Marietta, and Appalachia to North Central Ohio.

Only 26 of 56 dispensaries with initial approval have received a final certificate of operation from the Ohio Board of Pharmacy. By the end of July, 53,082 patients had found a doctor to recommend the drug after gathering their medical records and paying the $50 annual registration fee. But only 30,284 had purchased the drug, according to figures reported to the state by licensed dispensaries.

That means 43% of card-carrying patients with one of 21 ailments approved for cannabis treatment have yet to find relief as operators await state approval and an industry to build out.

"Obviously the two biggest concerns for our patients is pricing ... and access to dispensaries. And those two go hand in hand," said Alec Chenkus, a patient education manager at Ohio Medical Marijuana Card, which connects patients with dispensaries and staffs doctors who can recommend the drug.

Chenkus said operators are facing everything from local push-back from rural town councils to legal state challenges to construction and other issues common to any business startup. Every month that they lack a certificate of operation, operators are paying staff and rent with no product revenue.

In Summit County, Bloom Medicinals is scheduled to open its Akron dispensary at 737 North St. on Sept. 8, according to the company’s voicemail system.

Without announcing an official launch date, an open house was held in March for a dispensary at 1220 Buchholzer Blvd. near Chapel Hill Mall. “We’re opening very soon,” said a recorded voice message at the dispensary operated by Herbology. The company's website says “Cuyahoga Falls location is the first Herbology dispensary we opened in Ohio.”

A third dispensary run by Greenleaf Apothecaries was supposed to open earlier this year in downtown Akron at 46 S. Summit. Now, it's indefinitely on hold pending a state lawsuit.

Attorney General Dave Yost, whose office represents the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, is arguing in Franklin County Common Pleas Court that Greenleaf Apothecaries' new business partner, Acreage Holdings, is actually running the show.

Ohio law says medical marijuana businesses with new owners or operators must apply for a new license. The law is intended to stop investors from snatching up and transferring operating licenses, which has happened elsewhere, state officials have said.

Tom Haren, the attorney for Greenleaf Apothecaries, said the allegation lacks merit.

Greenleaf Apothecaries announced a “management service agreement” with Acreage Holdings in January. The New York company, originally founded in 2014, would “advise and assist in the operation of five dispensary licenses to be located in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Canton and Wickliffe in addition to a cultivation and processing facility in Middlefield, providing expertise, branding and design aesthetics, vendors relationships and technical know-how” while Greenleaf Apothecaries and its affiliated companies “maintain operational control,” according to a public filing in April.

Greenleaf Apothecaries has moved forward with preparations to open its last three dispensaries. In Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court, the company won a ruling Monday that forces the state to perform a final inspection on its Cleveland location, which it thinks will open this week.

"We were very happy to learn of the court's ruling, and we thank the court for its thoughtful and fair consideration of the issues presented to it," Kate Nelson, chief operating officer at Greenleaf Apothecaries, said in a statement. "We can't wait to begin serving patients at our state-of-the-art dispensary, located at 3865 Lakeside Avenue in Cleveland."

The Cleveland location will operate under the Botanist name, which Acreage Holdings uses in other states. Attorney Haren said he and his client haven't decided whether to ask a judge in Summit County to force the state to inspect the Akron location. A third store in Columbus also is on hold pending the state's lawsuit, which isn't set for trial until July 2020.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said the state has not determined a response to the ruling in Cuyahoga County, which could be appealed.

Until Bloom Medicinals opens in Akron next week, the nearest operational dispensaries to Summit County are Terrasana Labs at 10500 Antenucci Road, Suite 200, in Garfield Heights or Greenleaf Apothecaries' other Botanist location at 3840 Greentree Ave. SW in Canton. The state maintains a map of dispensaries with final approval at https://bit.ly/2NAklfB.

The state has also blocked plans by Harvest Grows LLC to open a large-scale grow operation near the Ohio River and dispensaries in Dayton, Columbus and Athens. The state pharmacy board and commerce department are arguing that the company, part of Arizona-based Harvest Health and Recreation, is not minority-owned. In a practice that has since been ruled unconstitutional, having an African-American president allowed the company to jump ahead of 11 other applicants to get Ohio's last large-scale cultivation license.

Chenkus said there's no single reason why half of Ohio's dispensaries have yet to open. "Honestly," he said, "I’m having trouble understanding why some dispensaries are not open."

He's had no luck reaching the owners of the dispensary near Chapel Hill Mall. The state claims there's no backlog of final inspections. Meanwhile, operators tell Chenkus they've been waiting weeks for a final inspection. It’s kind of a "he said-she said relationship," said Chenkus.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.