Medical marijuana is now being grown legally in Missouri, but it won’t be ready for the more than 52,000 patients waiting to buy it until at least late summer.
Despite initial projections that medical marijuana would be available for purchase in the spring, the Department of Health and Senior Services only earlier this month approved two of the state’s 60 cultivation sites to begin growing.
And a growing season needs to be factored in before the plant is ready. That will take at least 12 weeks, said John Curtis, co-owner of Beleaf Medical in Earth City, the state’s first cultivation site to begin growing.
Cultivation sites each are allowed to grow up to 30,000 square feet of cannabis, but they can’t start growing that all at once.
“We’re not starting out that big,” Curtis said. “We’re going to start out with about 3,000 square feet of canopy, and then we’ll add about 3,000 square feet to that every 30 days.”
Curtis said this not only accounts for the amount of time needed for the plant to vegetate, but also for staggering the harvest.
“I don’t grow a whole giant room and then harvest the room all at once,” he said. “Because then I’ve got this huge amount of flower that I’ve got to process, and I’ve got to process it all at the same time. So I stagger my plantings and I stagger my harvesting so I have perpetually harvesting rooms.”
A big step forward
Beginning to grow the drug is exciting for the tens of thousands of cardholders and caregivers who have been waiting to legally buy the medicine since the program began almost a year ago.
One Missouri woman, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, has been forced to get her medicine illegally for years. She is a legal cardholder in Missouri, but since it hasn’t been available, she has been traveling to Illinois for marijuana. As of January, Illinois has been selling recreational cannabis, so she drives a two-hour round trip to make her purchase. Crossing back into Missouri with the drug is still federally illegal.
The woman has a rare autoimmune disease that took about five years to diagnose. It’s called dermatomyositis, which she explains this way: “If you can imagine if lupus and muscular dystrophy had a baby, that’s what dermatomyositis is.”
She said her symptoms vary but include muscle weakness, skin rashes and open sores. She undergoes small doses of chemotherapy.
“It tends to be a precursor for malignancies, and that’s where this disease gets even more weird,” she said. “If you develop cancer and you beat cancer, typically the dermatomyositis just goes away. If you don’t develop a malignancy, then you live in lifelong pain.”
Pairing all of this with fibromyalgia, she said simply getting out of bed was a struggle. And when doctor after doctor failed to properly diagnose or treat her symptoms for half a decade, that made it even harder.
“Being sick dramatically changed my life,” she said. “On top of that, I was in pain so I was prescribed a lot of opioids. At one point, they were giving me a fentanyl patch.”
She finally found relief using medical marijuana, and today she is completely opioid free. But since Missouri’s program isn’t ready, she’s still making the drive to Illinois two times a month.
“That’s what I have to do at this point,” she said. “I have black-market contacts, but for me it is a medical thing. Even before COVID, I didn’t want to meet some sketchy guy in a parking lot because I am immunosuppressed. Even before everyone is worried about this virus, I’m worried about the flu.”
She was looking forward to sales beginning in the spring, because she will have a dispensary just around the corner from her home, giving her easy access to the medicine that’s changed her life.
Lack of final inspection requests
As for why the program is delayed, the state’s director, Lyndall Fraker, said it wasn’t due to delays in his department. He said the holdup was receiving requests for final inspections for the facilities to grow, test and sell cannabis.
“It wasn’t like they were waiting on us and we couldn’t get out and do them because of" the pandemic, he said. “Once we got those requests, it was just a week or two and we were able to get them done.”
He said he heard some facilities had to halt construction for short periods of time due to the coronavirus.
“Some of the facilities had a little bit of slowdown with subcontractors, something like that coming in and working in their buildings.”
However, Curtis, the owner of the cultivation site in the St. Louis area, said that coronavirus-related delays didn’t hit too hard, and his operation will move quickly to have the drug ready as soon as possible.
According to the DHSS website, so far there have been 368 requests for initial inspections for facilities in the medical marijuana program, while the department has completed 156. These inspections are different from the “commencement,” or the final inspections, of which the department has only received five and completed two.
Fraker said the department has yet to receive final inspection requests for any of the state’s 10 testing facilities, which needs to happen before the cannabis can actually be sold in dispensaries. Nor has the department received inspection requests for any of the 192 dispensaries that will sell the drug.
As for the patient who is forced to obtain her medicine illegally, she said she is eager for the day she won't have to cross state lines to live without pain.
"It'll be within walking distance," she said. "It's going to be mindblowing, the change in my life."