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Ohio's First Crop of Medical Marijuana Dealers See Green, But Face Hurdles

On Friday, the Ohio Department of Commerce will stop accepting applications for its first crop of medical marijuana dispensary licenses. Although only 60 licenses will be issued, some industry insiders estimate that applications will number in the hundreds.

"It's a very hot market," said Thomas Rosenberger, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association's recently formed Ohio chapter.

They’ll help guide dispensaries through what is expected to be a $300-400 million-per-year industry.

But before they can rake in the green, would-be weed-dispensers must clear some major hurdles including bureaucratic and financial requirements, logistical challenges, and legal risks.

"The application process is pretty thorough," Rosenberger said.

On top of a $5,000 fee, applicants must submit a detailed business plan, floor layouts, and security protocols. Key employees must undergo a background check. And applicants must have access to at least $250,000 in liquid capital so that if they are selected, they have the funds to get their operation up and running.

Finding the perfect location, or rather, any location, is another a challenge for applicants, said Kevin Murphy, an attorney who advises clients on the legal aspects of the medical marijuana business.

Unlike a marijuana growhouse, which can be located in remote industrial areas, Murphys says a dispensary "is a retail outlet and you need patients and customers to have access."

But that’s harder than it sounds, he says. The state prohibits dispensaries from locating within 500 feet of a school, church, public library, playground, park or addiction treatment center.

"The best locations in densely-populated areas with a lot of traffic are hard to find," he said. And when they're found, "you have multiple parties bidding on the same site."

Applicants also need to show that they have gotten the green light from the municipalities where they hope to locate.

Of course, even with the increasing acceptance of medical marijuana nationwide, the consumption, cultivation, and sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

"So, there is some risk your business could be shut down if there's a federal crackdown," Murphy said.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Justice Department took a hands-off approach to marijuana. And while President Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has previously railed against marijuana legalization, the Obama-era policy has largely continued.

Ohio was the 26th state to legalize medical marijuana. It is currently legal in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s just a matter of time, Murphy said, before medical marijuana is legalized nationwide.

“I think we’ve reached a tipping point," he said.

A law approved by Ohio lawmakers last year says the state’s new medical marijuana industry has to be fully operational by September 2018.

Adrian Ma is a business reporter and recovering law clerk for ideastream in Cleveland. Since making the switch from law to journalism, he's reported on how New York's helicopter tour industry is driving residents nuts, why competition is heating up among Ohio realtors, and the controlled-chaos of economist speed-dating. Previously, he was a producer at WNYC News. His work has also aired on NPR's Planet Money, and Marketplace. In 2017, the Association of Independents in Radio designated him a New Voices Scholar, an award recognizing new talent in public media. Some years ago, he worked in a ramen shop.