ST. LOUIS — Missouri's top cannabis program official on Monday estimated that newly licensed dispensaries will be up and running in a few months.
"I think possibly we would see a dispensary sometime in the summer, but I wouldn't pinpoint it beyond that," said Lyndall Fraker.
The former Marshfield lawmaker and Walmart manager spoke to the News-Leader outside a green room at MoCannBizCon+Expo, a trade conference held early this week at Union Station in St. Louis.
Fraker had just come from a keynote talk for attendees. Less packed than at last year's inaugural Missouri marijuana-industry conference, the hotel ballroom included a few hundred people, dozens of them tied to companies that won coveted permits to run cannabis-related businesses like dispensaries and commercial grow operations.
A representative with Midwest Canna Expos, the conference organizer, said the company did not have an attendee count by late morning Monday because many attendees registered at the door, not in advance. As she introduced Fraker, Midwest Canna Expos CEO Karin Chester told the crowd that 129 vendors were attending Missouri's biggest weed-industry event this year.
Fraker: Program progress 'pretty remarkable'
"You know, down in southwest Missouri we have a lot of bridges," Fraker said when he took the podium, flanked by a row of hemp plants, new since the last year.
"They flood and wash out a lot of times. And some days I feel like I've been flooded and washed out," he added.
The line was an apparent reference to howls from jilted companies and lawmakers over the state medical marijuana licensing process for businesses, along with accusations advanced by some that Wise Health Solutions, the company hired to "blind score" the license applications, engaged in wrongdoing.
Fraker spent most of his stage time on progress updates from Missouri's new cannabis program.
He said 35,532 Missourians have been approved for qualifying medical marijuana patient cards as of Feb. 24. The number increases daily. His division's small staff has handled more than 45,000 calls and emails over the past year, Fraker said.
"Pretty remarkable in a year's time," he said.
Only 1,090 applications have been denied, according to data Fraker presented from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which oversees Missouri medical cannabis.
Likely for the first time, Fraker publicly presented a county-by-county map of the Show-Me State indicating the places where marijuana patients live. St. Louis County and Kansas City lead the pack, with Springfield next, followed by suburban St. Louis counties and Columbia.
In rural areas, the I-44 and I-70 corridors stood out as relatively patient-heavy, along with the Joplin and Branson areas. Very small numbers of patients are located in regions including the Missouri Bootheel and northern Missouri areas butting up against Iowa.
Fraker also presented new data on age groups of Missouri cannabis patients.
He said the portion of patients in their 60s, 16.67 percent, so far "is actually much higher than I would have guessed that it might be."
People in their thirties make up the largest single group, 21.7 percent of the total Missouri patient count, followed by slightly smaller percentages for 50- and 40-somethings.
Twentysomethings are a relatively smaller group: 12.35 percent of the total.
"We might have thought the 18-to-29-year-old bracket would have been the highest, or maybe a little higher," Fraker observed.
The smallest group by far: Minor children. They make up less than 1 percent of Missouri cannabis patients.
Fraker also presented a ranked list of 21 medical conditions tied to patients approved by doctors and state authorities for medicinal weed.
The top five reasons Missourians have been approved include the following health problems:
Psychiatric disorders: 7,379 patients;
Chronic medical condition: 6,109;
Physical/Psychological Dependence: 3,819;
Other Condition: 2,175;
Cancer, HIV and other terminal illnesses represented a little more than 1,000 patients among the 35,000 approved so far.
"Probably not too surprising on that one, is it?" Fraker said of the psychiatric disorder patient count.
Compliance and verification officers with the state health department will begin meeting Wednesday with businesses who won licenses, Fraker said.
"I think it'll be a really great time to see the folks who will be producing and selling the product in Missouri," he said.
Reactions from Springfield
Shortly after hearing Fraker's talk, Dedee Culley visited the Springfield NORML booth on the conference floor. Based in Republic, Culley is a nurse who owns 2 Leaf Nurses, a new for-profit education and patient advocacy venture.
She told the News-Leader she thinks given the resources allotted to them, Fraker and his team have done well with the new program, particularly in holding to tight constitutional deadlines.
"I think probably the biggest thing I came away with this is they have not yet forgotten that these are patients," Culley said. "This is public safety, and these patients have medical needs, and that's where I really keyed in."
Her main goal in attending the conference is making connections with southwest Missouri industry people, she said.
Larry Ellison, whose Ozarx Botanicals won a dispensary license for a location at 3800 W. Sunshine St. in Springfield, told the News-Leader "everything's looking great" with the marijuana program.
He was willing to make a specific prediction about his dispensary.
"We'll be ready by June 1 with our dispensary," Ellison said, "and as soon as the product is ready after that, and the potential suppliers that we're talking about, they're planning — assuming they can get the inspection and every(thing) — by the first of July or so."
Ozarx Botanicals will host open house events for patients before they have product to sell, as a matter of communication with the public, Ellison said.