HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Medical marijuana licensees can begin cultivating their crops next week, the state announced Wednesday. But exactly when patients can begin purchasing products is still unclear.
The state Department of Health announced that its online tracking system called BioTrackTHC, which will monitor the inventory and sale of medical cannabis, will go live on February 1. That means the eight dispensaries statewide can begin growing marijuana if they're in compliance with all the rules.
It's a significant milestone for the industry, but there are still two major hurdles to cross before patients get their pot. First, the tracking software must be connected to the medical marijuana registry program. That's expected to take eight weeks. And the labs - that will be testing the products' safety before going to market - still need to be certified.
"There's still a lot to do and we are diligently working on all fronts to ensure those happen as quickly as possible," Keith Ridley, director of DOH's Office of Health Care Assurance, said.
This news was upsetting to patients and their advocates.
"I just want to know when I can get my medicine and when my family can get their medicine. I have a background in IT development. It should not take this long," said Tina Sprague, who's been dealing with scoliosis, arthritis, and chronic back pain.
"We have friends and relatives in similar situation, so we're as much working for the person that we don't know as for the persons that we do," Ridley said.
For the dispensaries and labs, the delays have been costly.
"When certain hurdles come about that are not a result of any failure on the lab or on the dispensary side, we're forced to bear the weight of the financial expense," said Michael Rollins of PharmLabs, LLC.
Some of the dispensaries and labs we spoke to say they have been paying tens of thousands of dollars every month out-of-pocket.
"Our expense right now is our rent and our pay for our employees and we refuse to let go the people we already hired," Rollins added.
But many in the industry agree it's critical that they continue to push ahead because in the end - it's all about the patients.
"Honestly, we can wait, but for some of these people, they can't wait. So that's the challenge," said Kerry Komatsubara of the Hawaii Education Association for Licensed Therapeutic Healthcare (HEALTH), a trade organization that represents the eight medical marijuana dispensaries.
As of December 31, DOH says there are more than 15,300 people in its medical marijuana registry program.
Four of the eight dispensaries have indicated they are ready to go and are scheduling final inspections.
Licensees say it takes between three to five months to grow their plants from seeds, but there is nothing in the law that says they need to grow their crops from seeds. Each dispensary is allowed to cultivate up to 3,000 plants.
The Hawaii Dispensary Alliance, meanwhile, predicts revenues generated by the state's medical marijuana licensees will top $30 million in its first year.