Arkansas startup unveils plans for state’s first accredited cannabis lab

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 2,154 views 

Arkansas’ first announced cannabis testing lab will hold an open house and dedication next week as the Natural State moves closer to entering the fast-growing medical marijuana industry that is now legal in 31 states.

On Wednesday, Dec. 12, Steep Hill Arkansas has scheduled an open house for its state-of-the-art cannabis testing lab at 11711 Hermitage Road, Suite 5, in Little Rock, from 5-7 p.m. Steven DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside, Steep Hill Laboratory, the Arc View Group, the National Cannabis Industry Association and other cannabis-related businesses and organizations, will give the dedication speech at 6 p.m.

In June 2017, Steep Hill President and CEO Jmîchaeĺe Keller announced plans to set up licensed operations in Arkansas, one of seven states the privately-held Berkeley, Calif.-based cannabis testing lab has expanded to since 2008.

Local pharmacist Brandon Thornton, who also serves as secretary of the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association, and former Windstream and Alltel executive Brent Whittington, will be co-owners of the startup firm and first Steep Hill licensee in the Southeast U.S. To be considered for a partnership with the California cannabis lab, accredited investors must have earned income that exceeds $200,000 over the past two tax years and net worth of more than $1 million.

As a cannabis testing lab, Steep Hill didn’t have to go through the extensive application process regulated by the state Medical Marijuana Commission, which included a $15,000 applicant’s fee and a host of other regulations that cannabis growers, dispensaries and cultivation facility operators must abide by.

Still, Steep Hill and all other medical marijuana testing labs must meet other state and federal regulatory requirements, including the rigorous International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) “17025 accreditations” that include protocols for testing on cannabis or cannabis-derived products, such as flower, concentrates, butter/waxes, drinks, tinctures, hash oil, edibles and more.

Thornton, who will serve as CEO of the local cannabis startup, said the lab currently has four employees, three full-time and one part-time worker.

“Our focus is preparing for ISO accreditation, which is required by the state. Our first ISO inspection is Dec. 27 and our goal is to become accredited by the end of February. Once accredited, we will apply for approval from the Department of Health,” Thornton said.

Thornton, a pharmacist, also said that Steep Hill has been in contact with local growers in hopes of earning their business.

“I’ve enjoyed following their progress and have been impressed. Our Arkansas cultivators have assembled quality teams, and I believe Arkansas patients are going to have some of the best medical cannabis in the country,” he said.

Although not an official grand opening, Thornton said the Little Rock startup still has a lot of work to do in the race to be the state’s first accredited cannabis lab, including hiring a lab technician and field sampling team as Arkansas gets closer to opening its first dispensary.

“We’ll have an official opening if and when we get our approval from the state,” he said.

According to the local startup’s website, the Little Rock lab will focus on analytical testing of cannabis products, which checks the quality, potency and safety of varied marijuana strains used to treat qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, seizures, HIV/AIDS and more. The California cannabis technology firm also has licensed labs in Hawaii, New Mexico, Maryland, Oregon, Washington state, and Washington, D.C.

Last week, five cultivators selected by AMMC to grow Arkansas’ first legalized marijuana crop said they hope to have their greenhouses up and running and cannabis products on the shelf sometime between April and August of next year.

Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG), which was hired by state regulators in August to review and score 198 tabled dispensary applications, is expected to hand those bids back to the AMMC board in mid-December — opening the door for the regulators to award up to 32 licenses for dispensary retailers before year’s end.

The five-person regulatory panel has scheduled a meeting on Dec. 19 to hear from PCG and get an update on an opinion from state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge if Arkansas State University-Newport should be considered a school under Amendment 98, the ballot issue in the 2016 election that legalized medical marijuana in Arkansas.

That opinion, which is not legally binding, will clarify whether an application from Delta Medical Cannabis Company for a cultivation facility near ASU-Newport is valid. Earlier this year, Delta Medical received the fifth and final permit from the AMMC board to open a cultivation facility in Newport, but has stalled construction out of concerns that the AMMC board could rescind its permit if its planned site for a greenhouse is located too close to a school.

Amanda Priest, spokeswoman for the AG’s office, would not say when the AG’s opinion would be released but that that “it was in the process.”

As of Wednesday (Dec. 5), the state Health Department has approved 6,535 applications for medical marijuana registry cards for qualified patients and caregivers. Under state rules, medical marijuana ID cards will be issued approximately 30 days prior to products hitting the shelf at a state-approved cannabis dispensary.