The state’s first medical cannabis dispensaries could open in a little more than a year, and one is likely to be in – or near – Hampton Roads.
Erase thoughts of marijuana fields waving in the breeze, though. Colorado is still a long way away.
What’s proposed is more clinical and better suited to an industrial area or possibly a commercial park, according to some city and state officials.
“This isn’t the recreational stuff taken to an enterprise level,” said state Del. Glenn Davis, one of the champions of legislation that has expanded the production possibilities and accessibility of cannabis oil for medical use.
“This is significant technology going into helping to maintain a quality and consistent product” for those with medical needs. The examples he’s seen are all indoors, said Davis, a Republican who represents part of Virginia Beach.
Virginia’s Board of Pharmacy is reviewing 51 applications, submitted by companies from in and out of state that want to set up shop in one of five health care regions. Fifteen applications are targeted to an area that extends from South Hampton Roads to Williamsburg,according to Davis. The board will regulate the emerging industry.
The state isn’t releasing the names of the applicants, citing confidentiality laws, but city officials say companies have expressed interest in Virginia Beach and Suffolk. In Chesapeake, officials have also signed letters of support for two businesses seeking licenses.
The board could reveal which five companies will receive conditional approval at a public meeting this fall, according to a spokeswoman. Dispensaries then have a year to get established, and that includes securing local zoning approvals.
Here’s answers to some questions about the emerging industry:
What is a dispensary?
It’s a facility – technically a “pharmaceutical processor” – that’s been permitted by the Board of Pharmacy to cultivate cannabis plants for the production of cannabidiol, or THC-A, oil, according to the board’s website.
All phases of the manufacturing process, from growing the plants to dispensing the product, will be conducted onsite by one provider. The oil produced by the dispensaries can contain no more than 5 percent THC, the chemical component in marijuana that produces a high.
Products will be dispensed to patients who have a written recommendation from a doctor to treat the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease that could be treated with the oil. Patients and doctors must be registered with the board. There’s a $50 registration and annual renewal fee for both.
Companies that submitted applications paid a nonrefundable fee of $10,000. If approved, the permit fee is $60,000, according to the board’s website. The annual renewal fee is $10,000.
What do local officials say?
In a July presentation, Warren Harris, director of Virginia Beach’s Economic Development, told City Council members that cannabis oil is “considered highly safe and highly regulated” and represents an opportunity for capital investment and job opportunities.
In Chesapeake, Mayor Rick West and City Manager James Baker recently signed letters of support for Chesapeake Bay Therapeutics and Tidewater Therapeutics to open dispensaries there.
“I really don’t see a downside,” West said by phone, adding that the medical benefits are well documented. “If we have that possibility to do it and do it without any negative impacts on our community or society, then I think we should go forward.”
In 2015, legislation provided people with drug-resistant epilepsy and their caregivers a legal defense for the possession of cannabis oil. But the product couldn’t be obtained in Virginia; the law simply provided some protection for people who were getting their medicine from out of state, according to Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director for Virginia National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Since then, laws have passed to establish a framework to produce and dispense the oil in Virginia. And this year, the General Assembly unanimously approved expanding legislation to allow any licensed medical doctor or osteopathto certify the oil’s use by patients with any medical condition deemed appropriate.
“It’s a sound public policy,” Pedini said. “Instead of legislating conditions, we’re simply allowing physicians to do their jobs and removing legislators from the doctor-patient relationship.”
Proponents and officials have said these changes could help stem the tide of opioid abuse.
Does this mean cannabis oil is legal?
The law does not make possession of cannabis oil legal. But it provides a legal defense for people certified by a licensed doctor to use it if they are found in possession of it.
“This is not an ideal situation,” Pedini said, noting that most marijuana charges stem from traffic stops. Virginia NORML recommends that patients or their caregivers have the signed certificate with them at all times to present if questioned by law enforcement and/or use in court as needed for their defense.
“It isn’t a back door to recreational use,” Davis said. “The hoops the doctor, and the dispensary, and the user, have to jump through to even be able to handle this is pretty significant.”
According to Business Insider, recreational marijuana is legal in nine states and medical marijuana is legal in 30 states. Marijuana is still illegal on a federal level.
How will it be regulated?
Anyone who is going to come into contact with cannabis oil has to be registered.
No recommendations for use can be provided at the dispensary, Davis said, and prescribing doctors can’t have financial ties to the facility, nor can their family members or employees.
Unique product numbers will be assigned at the state level as part of a prescription-monitoring service, Davis said. The state has a long list of regulations and requirements for patients, doctors and processors, which include criminal background checks for employees.
Patients or caregivers must pick up their first dose in person. After that, it can be supplied through a delivery service, but cannot be mailed or shipped, according to Davis.
Whether Virginia has cracked the door to broader legalization policies may be up for debate, but most advocates seem to agree the dispensaries are a step in the right direction to help people find relief for a myriad of medical conditions closer to home.
“It will be exciting to have a regulated cannabis industry in Virginia that will also put their lobbying power behind more robust common-sense reform,” Pedini said.