California-based cannabis testing lab plans to open an office in Arkansas

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 818 views 

A former executive at Windstream and Alltel is co-owner of a company seeking to be the first medical marijuana testing lab in Arkansas.

Berkeley, Calif.-based Steep Hill Labs announced Thursday (June 1) it will open a testing lab in Arkansas to support the medical marijuana industry expected to emerge now the process is underway for medical marijuana to become legal in Arkansas. Steep Hill is the only company to make public its plans to open a cannabis quality testing center in Arkansas.

Arkansans voted in the 2016 general election (53%-47%) to legalize medical marijuana, and Arkansas legislators in the 2017 Legislative Session approved a plan to regulate the industry. Arkansas is now one of 27 states with some form marijuana legalization.

The Medical Marijuana Commission is expected to begin accepting license applications for cultivation facilities and dispensaries July 1, and potential licensees will have 45 days to present their paperwork. Cultivation facilities and dispensaries will be scored based on merit, which should last about six weeks. The regulations will allow five cultivation licenses and 32 dispensaries.

Brandon Thornton, a pharmacist and CEO of Steep Hill Arkansas, and Arkansas native Brent Whittington will lead the operation in Arkansas. Thornton is also the vice president of pharmacy operations for Birmingham, Ala.-based Custom Pharmacy Solutions. He previously served as the director of pharmacy operations for CHD Meridian Healthcare in Nashville. He received a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from McWhorter School of Pharmacy at Samford University and is licensed to practice pharmacy in seven states, including Arkansas. He is a member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and resides in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Whittington, co-owner of Steep Hill Arkansas, is also the owner and CEO of Moots Cycles, a bicycle manufacturer based in Steamboat Springs, Colo. He previously worked at Little Rock-based Windstream from 2005 to 2014, serving as the company’s CFO and COO during that period. He was senior vice president of operations for Alltel prior to joining Windstream in December 2005. He serves on the board of directors of Rignet, a public company based in Houston, and is on the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas. He holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and resides in Little Rock.

Thornton told Talk Business & Politics that state officials first require the company to receive ISO 17025 accreditation – general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories.

“We have to get our ISO accreditation before approval by the Board of Health. I have already started the accreditation process and hope to be complete that in plenty of time before there product to be tested. One of the reasons we have partnered with Steep Hill is their experience in the accreditation process and their expertise in testing and analyzing medical cannabis to ensure compliance with public safety standards,” Thornton said.

He said the company plans to open the lab in Little Rock, and it will be able to service the entire state.

In a broadly distributed press release, Jmîchaeĺe Keller, president and CEO of Steep Hill, said the company opened the nation’s first cannabis testing lab in 2008.

“We have worked very hard to establish our global leadership in the cannabis testing space, and the strength of our new partners in Arkansas is a testament to this leadership – together we intend to be the gold standard for science, service and safety for the medical cannabis industry in Arkansas,” Keller noted in the statement.

Storm Nolan, a Fort Smith-based real estate developer and manager who with his partners at CSK Hotels owns 600,000 square feet of real estate, could be one of Steep Hill’s customers. Nolan hopes to receive one of the cultivation licenses.

Their plans are to build a 16,000-square-foot shell building in Fort Smith. Iif they win a license, they’ll complete it as a marijuana facility, and if not, it will become something else. That facility will enable them to grow the plants under extended lighting hours. If they win the license, they’ll then attach 6,000-square-foot greenhouses that can be completed in six to eight weeks. Those will enable the company to reduce energy costs.

The global market for medical marijuana is estimated to reach $55.8 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research.

Talk Business & Politics freelancer Aric Mitchell contributed to this report.

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