Add medical marijuana to the list of industries upended by the coronavirus.
Earlier this year, Utah officials envisioned the state’s 14 cannabis pharmacies would open in two waves, one in March and another in July, after medical cannabis was legalized in the state in 2018.
But July 1 has come and gone and only three locations are up and running statewide.
Deseret Wellness, the group behind the pharmacy planned in Summit County, says it will likely be this fall before the only location on the Wasatch Back will open.
Jeremy Sumerix, market president for Deseret Wellness, said the firm has been making progress since being named a license-designee in January, switching locations from a business park near U.S. 40 in Summit County to a Kearns Boulevard location within the Park City limits and securing an administrative approval from the city.
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The pharmacy will be located in a basement suite in the Emporium shopping center, 1351 Kearns Blvd. In mid-March, Park City granted Deseret Wellness, a New York and Pennsylvania-based LLC, an administrative permit for the site, and Sumerix said the firm is pleased with the progress.
“Really, as far as licensing … there are no more major steps, we’ve been given the green light by the state,” Sumerix said. “… We’re past the point of stress — we really are very, very excited. We’re no longer in building-the-concept mode. We’re ready to bring Deseret Wellness to Park City and Provo.”
Sumerix said the delay in opening was due to securing permits, hiring staff, procuring architectural work and construction. The firm is focusing on its Provo location, which they hope to open Aug. 1, targeting September or October for the Park City spot.
Deseret Wellness has yet to apply for a building permit or business license, according to Park City officials. Sumerix said the site might require renovation and remodeling work and would need to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Utah Department of Health officials will have to conduct a walk-through inspection before the pharmacy is allowed to open, as well.
Sumerix declined to comment on the reasoning behind the location switch, but noted that the pharmacy likely couldn’t be in a more central location in Park City given the strict regulations guiding pharmacies.
The state has imposed requirements that cannabis pharmacies must be certain distances away from residential areas and community centers like schools, parks and libraries. The administrative permit indicates the Kearns location satisfies those requirements, though the Utah Department of Health will make the final determination.
Sumerix described the experience a patient would have when entering the pharmacy, located down a set of stairs. A patient would have their identification checked at least twice, once at the door and again with a receptionist. There would also likely be a security guard present, though Sumerix said he didn’t think that person would be armed.
The receptionist would then confirm the patient’s prescription and direct the patient to a waiting room before they would be called into the medicine room, Sumerix said.
The cannabis would be stored in a secure location, he said, and only issued as payment is collected.
Transactions at cannabis pharmacies are often made with cash because of reluctance in the national banking industry to become involved with the industry. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and remains illegal on the federal level.
Sumerix said the business will endeavor to avoid being cash-only and was optimistic there were ways to do so.
He said he intended to work with local law enforcement agencies on plan to secure the premises, but had yet to contact either the Park City Police Department or the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. He also said he would work to introduce the business to local health care providers.
He said the team behind Deseret Wellness is made up of industry veterans, something that is unusual given the relative youth of the legal cannabis economy in the United States.
He estimated about 20 years of experience among executive-level staff, whom he said included two individuals from New York and one from Chicago. Two of the individuals started a medical marijuana brand in Pennsylvania, he said.
Sumerix indicated parking would likely be a concern, a point that was raised in the city’s March administrative review, according to minutes of the meeting.
The shopping center, which is also home to a dry cleaner, lighting store and hairdresser, has parking spots in front that are not allocated to any particular business.
Sumerix said he hoped the pharmacy would be able to offer delivery service, though the regulations that would govern that are still being debated.
He said it was important to integrate into the community.
“We know it’s on us to show that we’re a good part of society and they don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “We’ll be team players, we want to be those good neighbors you don’t hear from.”
The medical cannabis program is the result of Proposition 2, a ballot initiative passed in 2018 that was later changed by the state Legislature.
Estimates from the Department of Health before the COVID-19 pandemic indicated that fees on cannabis purchases would generate about $840,000 for the state in 2021 and the medical cannabis program would eventually yield about $2.2 million annually.
Most of the pharmacies are located near Wasatch Front population centers, with one in Logan and two planned in the southwest, in St. George and Cedar City. Initial plans for a pharmacy in Vernal are not included in the latest location list. The pharmacies currently operating are in Logan, South Ogden and Salt Lake City.
Richard Oborn, director of the Center for Medical Cannabis at the Department of Health, said the program’s slow takeoff has in many cases been due to a lack of available product. All of the state’s medical cannabis must be supplied by eight growers within the state and processed here, as well.
With well-established marijuana-growing industries in California and Colorado, Oborn compared the situation to Utah being responsible for cultivating all of its own oranges.
Sumerix said a lack of supply had not effected Deseret Wellness.