The head of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry said his goal is for the first medical marijuana products to reach state-licensed pharmacies next month.
“We have a goal of May,” Mike Strain, commissioner of agriculture and forestry told reporters Thursday after a tour of the department’s testing lab on the LSU campus. “It will be done as quickly as we can, but we’re not going to short-circuit testing. We’re going to do it quickly and accurately and not cut any corners.”
The testing lab is jointly operated by the ag department and the LSU AgCenter, which is authorized by the state and partnered with a private company to produce nonsmokalble medical marijuana for a specific list of health conditions.
While there has been widespread public interest in Louisiana’s fledgling medical marijuana program, Strain and Mark LeBlanc, director of the AgCenter’s Agricultural Chemistry Department, said testing marijuana is a small part of what the lab does.
The lab tests 8,000 samples a year, ranging from making sure that pesticides, animal feed and fertilizer meet the standard listed on its packaging, to testing for the presence of pesticides.
Amy Hernandez, a lab supervisor who handles testing medical marijuana and pesticides, said the facility is renowned across the U.S. for its chemical analysis. On Wednesday, the facility was running some tests at the request of researchers at the Southern University Ag Center and Dartmouth College.
Officials with the lab estimate they spent less than $800,000 to buy equipment to prepare the lab for medical marijuana testing. But none of the equipment will be used just for testing a single product.
“Every piece of equipment we bought was something already on our wish list,” LeBlanc said. All of the equipment is being used to analyze other samples and is available for researchers to use.
Even once the medical marijuana program gets fully ramped up, LeBlanc said testing for the program will take up 5% to 10% of the lab’s time, and that will be seasonal, when a batch of cannabis arrives.
But the work being done at the lab is critical. Louisiana is the only state in the union which is manufacturing a medical marijuana product that will be sold to patients. Unlike some other states, none of the marijuana products can be sold in a smokable form. State law requires the medicine to be in a liquid, such as an oil or spray; capsules or pills; gelatin-based chewables; topical applications; trans-dermal patches; or suppositories.
“We’re taking a product that has been dried, processed, had the compounds extracted, then used to make a pharmaceutical compound,” Strain said. “There are a lot more steps.”
Not only that, but the product will be used by sick people, who have conditions such as HIV and cancer. “We have to make sure that the product is clean as it can be and safe as it can be,” Strain said. That means testing to make sure a chewable product or lozenge doesn’t have pesticides, bacteria or fungus.
“There’s no margin for error here,” he said.