The medical marijuana grown by Louisiana’s two approved producers aligned with the LSU Agricultural Center and Southern University is supposed to be tested by an independent laboratory to make sure it’s safe, but the state agriculture department says it can’t find a suitable lab to do the testing and will have to do the work itself.
This month, the department threw out a request for proposals it issued, saying the respondents all failed to meet mandatory state qualifications, leaving the department to do the testing at least temporarily. That arrangement is causing concern for the state’s only operating grower, because the department is the regulator of the state's marijuana growers.
The ordeal also raises questions about whether the agency eventually will be able to find a company to do the work.
“If I disagree … or if any of the vendors disagree with the department test results, who are we supposed to appeal to to seek relief if the department is the ‘independent lab?’ ” said John Davis, president of GB Sciences Louisiana, the company growing marijuana with the LSU AgCenter. “They’re creating potentially new complications with their desired regulatory scheme.”
GB Sciences began growing its first batch of medical marijuana — the first state-sanctioned growing of marijuana in Louisiana history — this fall as part of a temporary growing period designed to get product on the shelves while the company gets full approval for its permanent operations.
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Now the product is being tested by the agriculture department, something Davis said is expected to take up to six weeks, which is longer than the industry standard. The department has said the testing will be quicker in the future.
The testing issue is one of many hiccups Louisiana’s medical marijuana program has experienced since lawmakers passed legislation enacting the program in 2016. GB Sciences has cited regulatory issues as the reason its target date for getting product to market was delayed. It now aims to have product available sometime in early 2019.
Lawsuits and other delays have held back the state’s other grower, a company hired by Southern University, which recently transferred ownership after the previous owner failed to make progress. A separate lawsuit over the license for the marijuana pharmacy in New Orleans is ongoing between a bidder and the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy.
“The law was passed in 2016,” Davis said. “Now we’re in December of 2018, and the independent lab issue hasn’t been resolved yet? That type of time frame is cause for concern for anyone in this space.”
State agriculture department spokeswoman Laura Lindsay said the issue of who will verify contested lab results is a “valid concern.”
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“Since every circumstance is different, each contested result is handled on a case-by-case basis, so we don't have a particular policy in place,” she said. “With that said, the lab will treat contested results of medical marijuana in the same manner that any other contested results of any other substance that is regulated by the department. Typically, if a result is contested, we will contract with an outside lab to confirm the specific contest result.”
The department issued its request for testing proposals earlier this fall and attracted bids from three companies: Digipath Labs, of Las Vegas, and Guardian Labs and Reactwell LLC, both of New Orleans. The department said all three failed to meet minimum qualifications for the bid.
The canceled request for proposals was not the first time the agriculture department failed to find a suitable lab. Earlier this year, Lindsay said the agency surveyed the state, looking for a lab to contract with, but couldn’t find one.
“We anticipate as Louisiana's medical marijuana industry matures and volume increases, more labs are likely to be prepared and more experienced resulting in successful proposals,” she said.
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As part of the state’s rules for the medical marijuana program, the product cannot be transported across state lines, making it impossible to contract with an out-of-state lab.
After “many searches,” Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain decided to expand the agency’s own lab capabilities in an effort to keep from holding up the process, Lindsay said.
Brandon Iglesias, owner of Reactwell LLC, which made a proposal to be the testing lab, said having the same organization be “judge and jury” is a threat to public safety.
“An independent dedicated testing laboratory in the state of Louisiana owned and operated independent of the state regulator is still a colossal gap to ensuring quality assurance and quality control for public safety and health,” Iglesias said.
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