Weeding out the stumbling blocks
You might have thought there would be a rush of medical cannabis license applications when the Department of Public Health and Social Services flashed the green light in January. That is not the case at all.
It has been five months since Public Law 33-220 went into effect to fully implement the Medical Cannabis Program on Guam. However, with many stumbling blocks along the way, there is no end in sight to the many delays. No commission has been established; rules and regulations have not been set; no testing laboratory has opened.
The law is “extremely problematic,” according to DPHSS Director James Gillan.
First, the law requires the department to accept applications for patients, cultivators, manufacturers and distributers 30 days from enactment but at the same time the department is also required to have rules, regulations, and standards in place to determine whether an application is even acceptable.
Applications to obtain a medical cannabis license have been available for pick up at the Central Public Health in Mangilao since January, but according to Gillan, they have received four qualified patient applications as of May 10.
“Qualified patient applications are on hold with the applicant’s understanding that because there are no dispensaries established yet, we will not issue any registry cards,” said Frances Santos, who oversees the Medical Cannabis Program at DPHSS.
Since the applications are on a standstill, Gillan asked the Attorney General for an opinion on whether they should proceed with accepting applications. “The response we received on April 20th was interesting,” he said. “The Attorney General basically said the law requires you to accept application, but to do so would not really make sense. The advice is to tell applicants to wait until rules and regulations are adopted.”
In regards to the setting up rules and regulations for the program, Gillan said they are hard at work and have started on a draft. However, they can’t move forward with the rules and regulations because they do not have a Medical Cannabis Regulation Commission to review them.
Public law states that the department has to establish a commission consisting of 11 members. Some of the duties of the commission include advising the department on the development of standards and regulations, reviewing and recommending additional debilitating medical conditions that would benefit from the medical use of cannabis, and recommending changes to allowable amounts of cannabis or products.
So far, Gillan said, “We have appointed seven members to the Medical Cannabis Commission.” The initial members were scheduled to meet on May 22 and 23 to organize and appoint the four remaining members, he added.
Business applications to cultivate, manufacture and distribute also have no movement because of an even bigger problem: There is no medical testing laboratory to test their products. “This is the absolute key to this whole thing. This whole thing cannot proceed without a laboratory. If we don't have one, the remaining businesses cannot proceed,” Gillan said.
When asked if applicants are able to ship their products to an off island laboratory for testing, Santos said no. A testing laboratory has to be established on island. “The lab or labs would be private. The labs would need to test for level of THC or Cannabidiol, pesticides, heavy metals, molds and fungus among others,” Gillan said.
Prepared products would also have to be tested to ensure that they are being sold at the strengths and levels that are on the packaging. “If we cannot assure the safety of the product, we cannot allow it to be sold,” Gillan said.
Expenses to establish a laboratory can also pose as a challenge. “We have been told that a minimum of $160,000 would need to be invested to make a lab that meets the requirements,” Gillan said. “We have had no serious inquiries. Our guess is that the population of qualified patients would not be large enough to generate enough testing material to make a lab viable.”
Gillan has another concern: “It is the price of the products and whether many of our qualified patients would be able to afford it.”
Since they have had no applications for the establishment of a testing laboratory, Gillan said that he reached out to the Guam Legislature Speaker Benjamin Cruz about whether the Government of Guam with 100% local money could establish the lab.
Even with the delays of fully implementing a Medical Cannabis Program, Gillan said, “I am hopeful that we can get this program in place, but I am also realistic.”