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Antoine Mordican has a medical cannabis cultivation license. And he is building out a facility to begin growing the product.

Under state law, he has to demonstrate he can maintain cultivation facilities; use an inventory control system approved by the state; can start cannabis cultivation within 60 days; can dispose of plant waste according to regulations, and can maintain financial stability.

“I’m building — getting everything in place, getting the necessary parameters and everything in place to be in compliance, such as security,” said Mordican, the CEO of Native Black Cultivation.

But when he will see actual marijuana plants grow depends on what approach he takes.

If he grows from seed, which Mordican plans to start out with, it would take about six to eight months before he can get the first harvest.

If growing from a clone, or a cutting from a growing plant, it would be closer to four to six months. Mordican said he might look at that approach, but added that he’s not in a rush.

“Everybody’s got their own techniques,” he said. “My goal is to be within compliance with the revenue rules and regulations.”

A long wait

The Alabama Legislature approved a medical marijuana program in 2021. When the product is available, patients certified by participating physicians will be able to use medical cannabis for 15 conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, depression and Parkinson’s Disease. Patients will have to apply for a card to obtain medical cannabis from licensed dispensers.

The law bans smoking cannabis or consuming it in food. Cannabis will be available in tablets, capsules, gelatins like gummies, oils, gels, creams, suppositories, transdermal patches, or inhalable oils or liquids. Cannabis gummies will only be allowed to be peach-flavored.

But delivery of the product has yet to occur. The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission (AMCC) began accepting applications in late 2022. The AMCC initially issued licenses in June but voided them due to scoring inconsistencies, later rescinding awards again in August amid a lawsuit over Open Meetings Act violations. The AMCC issued new licensing rules in October. The commission issued licenses a third time in December, but litigation halted the licensing process again in January for dispensaries and integrated facilities.

The litigation over the charges has ground the process to a halt. Even if the lawsuits are resolved, it could be several months before legal medical cannabis appears in the state.

Aaron Smith, co-founder and CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that it’s possible to get an indoor harvest in as little as three months. But he expects it may take longer for some cultivators, especially in the first round, because of inexperience with factors that can impact growth, such as climate and soil conditions.

“The quickest I’ve heard through the years but it’s usually between three to five months. It’s sort of the cycle so I’m not surprised there’s folks that are ready to do it within three,” Smith said.

After harvesting, Mordican said he can freeze or cure the plant, depending on how the processor wants it.  Or he can just cut down the whole plant if they want to extract THC, the psychoactive ingredient to be used in the final products, from other parts of the plant aside from the flower, such as leaves.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that because Alabama’s medical cannabis law bans smoking, the THC compound must be extracted by processors to be made into the products that can be sold under the law. He said it won’t be as simple as growing and harvesting the plant.

“First you’ve got to grow the marijuana, then you’ve got to harvest the flower from the marijuana, then you’ve got to turn that flower into a product that the Alabama law allows to be dispensed, because it doesn’t allow the flower to be dispensed,” Armentano said.

Extraction times vary from a few minutes to several hours, depending on the method. Once the THC is extracted, it can be made into medical cannabis products.

Jason Cobb, owner and CEO of Organic Harvest Lab, a processing company that was awarded a license, said that with the process they are using, from getting the plant from a cultivator to packaging the product may take about a week. In the initial stages, it may take slightly longer due to employees learning how to use the system Alabama uses to monitor the market.

“​​Once they put that into our facility, it’s not immediately going into the extraction. We’re going to make sure that we’re accounting for it, integrated into [the system]. So it’s just not a simple process,” Cobb said.

He said he wants to provide the best medical products to patients, which is why he’s using an extraction method that may take longer. Alabama medical products can’t be coated in sugar, which is often done to hide the taste from the marijuana plant. His extraction method removes that taste.

“We just think that we’ve got the best methods for that extraction so that you’re not going to taste that skunky, or that terpene flavor,” he said.

‘We knew this was going to happen’

Melissa Mullins, a patient advocate, said when the Legislature passed the law setting up a legal medical cannabis market in the state, she was “cautiously optimistic” that the state would have medical cannabis products by the end of 2022.

“We did know however that there would be trial and error while working to implement the program. Did we like it? No, we didn’t. Because sick, suffering and dying patients do not have the luxury of time,” Mullins said.

She said from the moment the licenses were awarded, she predicted there would be delays with a limited number of licenses.

“We knew this was going to happen. We have seen Alabama going down the same road as other states that we had researched and spoken with,” she said.

Armentano agrees. He said that if lawmakers in Alabama had taken into consideration programs in other states and not focused on establishing a restrictive program, the process may not have been as delayed.

“To me, what’s the most vexing about this is Alabama had 30-plus states, in many cases, states that have had programs up and running for more than three decades, to learn from — to learn what to do and to learn what not to do — and lawmakers clearly didn’t heed any of those lessons,” he said.

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, who sponsored the 2021 bill, did not return a request for comment.

Armentano said there’s no way to tell how long the litigation process will take. Georgia — which does not have its program up to capacity after eight years of making low-THC medical cannabis products available for certain conditions — faced lawsuits because of limited licenses on its program. The state opened its first dispensary in 2023.

“Too often, we see that these GOP-led efforts are more interested in being able to take bragging rights that they’ve passed the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the country, and they prioritize that goal over actually writing and implementing a workable law that will help patients,” he said.

Every state’s program is different and has faced unique challenges during and after its roll out, he said, adding that “we’re talking about 38 states so there’s no rule of thumb,” but that most states that started with a limited program revised their rules to expand access to more patients.

“I would emphasize the reason that we see these programs expand over time, so that they’re easier to access so that they can serve a greater number of patients so that more healthcare professionals can be involved. That’s something a number of states do over time,” Armentano said.

As of Monday, no bill had been filed in the Alabama Legislature addressing medical cannabis.

“Those of us that live with chronic pain all day every day are desperately trying to ride it out. Unfortunately, not all of us will be here when product is ready. It’s a dark side of medical cannabis regulation that people don’t want to talk about,” Mullins said.

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