RICHMOND, Va. — While tobacco has long been Virginia’s cash crop of choice, the creation of five medical cannabis processing facilities and dispensaries across the state will mark the emergence of a new kind of lucrative plant.
The framework of Virginia’s state-regulated medical cannabis industry was established in a slew of bills during the 2018 and 2019 General Assembly sessions, including SB 1557, which took effect on July 1.
The five processing and dispensing facilities will enable Virginians to access therapeutic strength, Board of Pharmacy regulated cannabis products after receiving approval by a certified doctor, physicians assistant or nurse practitioner.
The drug is not prescribed in the Commonwealth because marijuana remains illegal on a federal level.
Instead, Virginia created an “affirmative defense” which protects patients from criminal charges for possessing CBD and THC-A oil.
To invoke the defense, patients must meet with a Board of Pharmacy registered health care provider, receive a written certification for use, and then register with the Board.
Patients will then receive an affirmative defense card which enables them to legally buy, carry and consume regulated, medical-grade cannabis products purchased from one of the state’s five dispensaries.
The five facilities, one for each of the state’s health service areas, allow each company to handle the entire manufacturing process for their given jurisdiction – from growing marijuana and extracting the CBD, THC, and THC-A oils to running the dispensary storefronts that they sell through.
Green Leaf Medical Cannabis will serve “Health Service Area 4”, which encompasses 27 counties including Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties and the cities of Richmond, Petersburg, Hopewell and Colonial Heights.
The company is a multi-state operator currently cultivating and dispensing medical cannabis in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
In March, Green Leaf filed plans with the city to begin building their oil processing facility in South Richmond at 2804 Decatur St. near the Clopton Siteworks development in the Swansboro neighborhood.
Chief Operating Official and General Counsel of Green Leaf Kevin Goldberg says the company intends to provide cannabis products that are safer and more effective than the unregulated ‘hemp-based’ CBD products seen in smoke shops, cafes, and pet stores throughout the state.
“As a licensee, we are concerned about the way that CBD is being distributed in the Commonwealth, and we think that patients are not always getting what they think they’re getting,” Goldberg said. “There a lot of products being sold that say they have ‘x’ amount of CBD in it, but it doesn’t, so it’s not being properly dosed.”
Both marijuana and hemp can create CBD oils, but the difference between the two lies in the availability of THC, the key psychoactive component of cannabis.
“The CBD that we will be producing is different from the CBD that’s currently being produced and on the market,” Goldberg explained. “What’s currently on the market is from the ‘hemp’ plant, and by law, it cannot have THC in it, and a lot of the best medicinal qualities from CBD come from the combination of a little bit of THC with the CBD.”
Because Virginia law does not provide employee protection for using cannabis, Goldberg says that employees who are worried about drug testing could opt for a product containing pure CBD isolate instead of THC.
“We’re going to be making a combination of products with CBD and THC-A, and we’re also going to be making products that have only CBD isolate or only THC-A in them,” Goldberg said. “The reason we’re going to be making all these different combinations is that they have different medicinal benefits for different diagnoses.”
“For example, people who are getting chemo and have cancer, they’re going to need a high level of THC-A, because that’s what’s going to give them the high level of pain relief and symptom relief from the chemotherapy,” he added. “But children who suffer from intractable epilepsy are going to need a combination of CBD and THC-A to properly treat their symptoms and alleviate their seizures”
The cannabis products manufactured and sold by Green Leaf will be regulated by the Board of Pharmacy, tracked using an electronic tracking system, and tested by an independent, third-party lab. Those regulations ensure the products are free of additives, phytotoxins, mold, and pesticides, according to the company.
The independent testing facility will also test for the exact amount of CBD and THC in each product and ensure that they have the proper terpene profile for therapeutic benefits.
“Terpenes are naturally occurring ‘flavors’ in the cannabis plant that, when combined with the cannabinoids [CBD and THC] provide different medicinal relief for different conditions,” Goldberg said. “An example would be the terpene ‘Pinene’, which smells like pine needles. That terpene gives an uplifting effect that may be beneficial to someone suffering from, say, depression.”
“There’s a certificate of analysis for every batch, so then at the dispensary level, we can take the recommendation from the doctor and find the strain and product that best matches up with that recommendation,” Goldberg said.
In Virginia, manufacturers are not allowed to sell flower; the buds that are typically associated with smoking marijuana. Instead, Green Leaf will turn the cannabis buds into oil through an extraction process.
Processors were limited to dispensing only oil prior to the 2018 General Assembly session, but the bill expanded the approved products to those typically sold at compounding pharmacies; including capsules, topicals, lozenges, lollipops, and suppositories, with an allowance of up to 10 mg of THC each.
Under the terms of their conditional approval each dispensary, including Green Leaf’s Manchester facility, must open by the end of 2019.