By Theresa Bennett

After Akron resident Julie Costell spent nearly a decade advocating for the legalization of medical marijuana in Ohio, lawmakers finally approved it in 2016. 

It was a triumph for patients like Costell, who owns Ms. Julie’s Kitchen in Akron. “I wanted to put my money where my mouth was,” Costell says, and she quickly became one of the first thousand in the state to obtain a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for medicinal purposes — the golden ticket to purchasing and possessing it legally.

“I have had three joint replacements and breast cancer. I qualify for a bunch of pain pills, but I just don’t want to live my life that way,” Costell says. 

The path to purchasing marijuana wasn’t easy, though, nor has it been straightforward for many in the state. Three years after approval, Ohio’s Medical Marijuana Control Program is still rolling out. But in Akron, a concoction of hungry businesses and patients eager for relief are slowly making way for a successful program.

Up and running

From seed to sale, medical marijuana involves several businesses: cultivators, processors, testers, physicians and dispensaries.

Mayor Dan Horrigan says he recognized both the medicinal and economic benefits of the legislation, but he put a brief hiatus on business startups to set the framework for a program that was still loosely defined by the state.

“We wanted to take a thoughtful approach to where it would best fit in within the business community,” Horrigan says. “We couldn’t put that toothpaste back into the tube when it came to whether it was legal or not. It was either stand in front of it or try to guide it in a way that best fits the community.”

The city lifted its moratorium in May 2017, and by November of that year, the state had issued its first round of cultivation facility licenses. 

Summit County was permitted up to three cultivation licenses. All three are in Akron, making it the city with the most provisional cultivation licenses in the state. 

AT-CPC, also known as Calyx Peak, is located in a former city of Akron sewer maintenance garage at 1055 Home Ave. The facility received a Level I license from the state, meaning it is allowed an initial cultivation area up to 25,000 square feet. Once fully operational, the company plans on having about 30 full-time employees and eight to 10 part-time trimmers. 

Galenas LLC and Fire Rock Ltd. were given Level II licenses, allowing them 3,000 square feet of growing space each. Galenas is located on a formerly vacant lot at 1956 S. Main St. in a building constructed specifically for the space, equipped with LED lights, steel insulated walls and a roof where solar panels will eventually be added. Fire Rock is in a former commercial building at 1076 Home Ave. 

Both plan on hiring between 20 and 30 employees once fully operational.

“The city has done a good job of ensuring compliance without unnecessary bureaucratic interference,” says Pete Pantelides, the owner of Fire Rock.

Summit County was permitted three processors as well, two of which are in Akron: Ohio Medical Solutions Inc. in Chapel Hill and Calyx Peak, headquartered downtown. The third, MC2P LLC, is in Macedonia.

The county was also permitted up to three dispensary licenses, two of which were approved in Akron — 127 OH and The Botanist. The third Summit County dispensary, Herbology, is in Cuyahoga Falls.

Kate Nelson, chief operating officer of Greenleaf Apothecaries, which owns The Botanist group of dispensaries, is an Akron native who says she appreciates the realistic approach the city took with its guidelines. 

“Akron is the first location that we chose,” says Nelson, who has received licenses for facilities across the state. “Immediately when we started looking at medical marijuana in Ohio, we said this is a community that we wanted to be a part of.”

Even with the city’s embrace of industry businesses, though, operations have been slow to come online. All three cultivators just plucked their first buds this year, generating the first movement needed in a supply chain that takes about a month to hit the shelves in dispensaries. 

But as of Aug. 15, the Summit County dispensaries had yet to open their doors.

Jumping hurdles

Despite a lengthy licensing process and mounds of paperwork needed for final approvals by the state, many businesses cite construction challenges as their greatest hurdles. 

Like most of the local medical marijuana businesses, The Botanist is in an existing building: a three-story structure where the dispensary will occupy the first floor.

Construction of their facility took several months to complete. But just as it was finishing up, a snafu in renovations on the upper floors caused water damage to the business’ space, pushing back its opening to a date yet to be determined.

“It was tremendously frustrating,” Nelson says. “We have kind of gone through all the processes that we can, and now we’re just waiting on insurance estimates to come back.”

According to the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, 127 OH still has “substantial work” needed on its Akron facility as well.

Dispensaries across the state have faced similar delays. As of mid-August, only 26 of 56 with approvals were in operation across the state.

But signs are slowly starting to signal a breakthrough. 127 OH was given until Sept. 8 by the Board of Pharmacy to open before potentially losing its license, and “coming soon” signs have recently appeared in Herbology’s window. Other dispensaries are also cropping up in the region, including one in Canton and several in the Cleveland area.

Times a-changin’

Access today is far improved from when Costell obtained her recommendation nearly three years ago. Only a few physicians across the state were certified to make recommendations at the time, leading Costell on a trek to Toledo.

Today, at least 10 certified physicians are located in Akron alone, along with dozens of others in the region. (Readers can find a full list at https://med.ohio.gov/Publications/CTR-Search.)

Patients with any of the state’s 21 approved conditions, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, can now receive a medical marijuana card, which offers additional legal protections beyond a physician’s written recommendation.

Before processing companies began operations, only dry herb was available in dispensaries to use in vaporizers or homemade edibles (smoking it is not permitted under Ohio law). As those too slowly come into operation, new products like edibles, tinctures, oils and more are hitting shelves regularly in dispensaries.

A common grievance among the state’s more than 53,000 registered patients is the high cost of products. But that cost has decreased and will continue to do so as more businesses start up, Nelson says.

“As more and more processors come online, those prices are continuing to drop, and patients are more easily able to afford the products,” Nelson says.

As for the time it’s taken to get here, Costell says she doesn’t mind the wait. In her eyes, it’s allowed more people to become educated about the product and using it safely.

“I’m not so sad about us being slow here in Ohio … As more and more people get on and it becomes more mainstream, I think it’ll gain momentum,” Costell says. “I think it all happened in good timing.”

Photos from Galenas, a cultivation facility in Akron, by Theresa Bennett. Image at top of story: Mark Tabar. See his work on Instagram at @MarkTabar.

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