The first batch of legal medical marijuana in Louisiana won't be on the shelves until January at the earliest, two months later than hoped, with the state agriculture department having to take on product testing after an unsuccessful effort to find an independent lab to do the work.
GB Sciences, which was hired by LSU to be one of the state's two sanctioned growers of marijuana, expects it will provide samples of the drug to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry for testing around Nov. 1.
The first round of testing will take four to six weeks, said department spokeswoman Veronica Mosgrove. Then, the department will test the final product to ensure the formulation in the bottles matches what is on the label. That second round of testing will take a shorter amount of time, but Mosgrove said it is not yet clear exactly how long.
“I’m anticipating we won’t see a product available until January,” said John Davis, president of GB Sciences Louisiana.
Mosgrove added the agency is on the "same page" with the company's timeline, as long as all regulatory requirements are met.
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GB Sciences had initially planned to have the product available in September, but pushed that date back to mid-November over what it called regulatory delays.
The state's marijuana program has been in the works for years, but the process began in earnest over the past year or so, when LSU and Southern picked their respective growing partners, the state pharmacy board licensed nine marijuana pharmacies throughout the state and several dozen doctors signed up to "recommend" the drug.
Advocates have raised the possibility of bottlenecks when the product does hit the shelves, specifically because so few doctors have signed up to recommend it. State medical regulators loosened rules on physicians earlier this year in an effort to ease that fear.
Most of the pharmacies said they will be ready to open by January or earlier. The New Orleans pharmacy license is being contested in court by another applicant, and a hearing in the case is scheduled for late November.
The agriculture department, which is tasked with regulating the growing operations, has had trouble finding an independent testing lab in Louisiana that can test the products for heavy metals, pesticides and other materials. A request for proposals issued earlier this year did not attract any suitable applicants. The department told The Advocate in August it would likely do the testing itself, something that would require a change to its rules.
The agency told LSU and GB Sciences this week it will issue an emergency rule allowing it to do the testing, and will be ready to test the product when GB Sciences provides it. Meanwhile, the department is awaiting responses from another request for proposals that it issued in September to find an independent lab. Proposals are due Thursday, Mosgrove said.
"The LDAF lab is ready to start testing whenever we get a product," Mosgrove said.
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"It's a new product, that's why it's going to take four to six weeks," Mosgrove said, adding it will eventually speed up.
The department is using an existing testing facility it normally uses to test soil, fertilizer, water and other agricultural products.
GB Sciences and the LSU AgCenter met with Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain on Monday to hash out regulatory issues and "open up lines of communication," Davis said.
"The idea was to open up communication, share info, develop a game plan, because the community does not need us to have these starts and stops," Davis said. "Our theme was we need to work together in the best interest of the patients."
GB Sciences also wants to make sure the supply chain is not disrupted, Davis said, and ensure there is another batch of products ready to fill the shelves on the heels of the first batch. He also said regulatory delays could lead to higher prices for the drug.
Southern University's growing partner, Advanced Biomedics, is lagging far behind LSU's operation.
Davis said he hopes to get the GB Science's "phase one" up and running by Jan. 1. The company is currently producing the first batch of products in an "exterior pod" designed to get products on the shelves quickly pending approval for its main facility.
The company's growing operation is in a former Pepsi distribution center off Highland Road in south Baton Rouge. The phase one operations will take up much of the facility, and the company has plans for an eventual phase two expansion.
Mosgrove said the company submitted a suitability application, but it came back from State Police with "deficiencies." Once those are corrected, Louisiana State Police will conduct a background check, and once the applicants pass, the company will be able to move into its facility.
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