Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that EKG Labs will test marijuana samples on-site at its facility in Maryland Heights.
MARYLAND HEIGHTS — Missouri inched closer this week to its first commercial marijuana sales when a laboratory here got a green light to start testing samples of pot expected to hit shelves by late October.
EKG Labs on Saturday became the first of 10 licensed medical marijuana testers to start operations after passing a state inspection.
That means marijuana currently being grown by a handful of commercial cultivators may now undergo state-required testing for safety — and potency — so it can be sold at dispensaries.
EKG expects to start testing samples of marijuana as early as next week, said Natalie Brown director of operations.
“We’re hopeful that there will be product on the shelves and dispensaries by early to mid October for the patients,” Brown said.
The laboratory is the 12th marijuana business in Missouri to start operating after passing all inspections by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which administers the state’s medical marijuana program.
As of Tuesday, five commercial pot growers and six dispensaries had passed inspections to start growing and selling pot legally.
“The hope is to have product in November,” said Greg Gossett with Missouri Health and Wellness, which owns two dispensaries in Washington and Sedalia .
In the St. Louis area, companies now allowed to grow and sell pot include BeLeaf Medical, which is growing marijuana in Earth City and also owns a dispensary there, and Nirvana Bliss, which owns two dispensaries in Ellisville and Manchester.
BeLeaf has advertised on social media that it is close to harvesting marijuana, but a spokesperson could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Carroll County Cannabis Co. in Carrollton, Missouri, expects its first harvest this week, according to the Kansas City Star.
Missouri has issued 60 licenses to grow pot, 86 to make marijuana-infused products and 192 to open dispensaries, but the vast majority of businesses are still setting up and working through a hurdle of state regulations.
But knowing that testing will be available as soon as the marijuana is grown and ready to be packaged and sold is a relief to business owners, said Susan Griffith, president of CAMP Cannabis, which stands for Certified Alternative Medicine Providers.
CAMP expects to undergo its last inspection in December and start planting marijuana early next year, Griffith said. Plants can take anywhere from three to five months to grow, meaning they could sell pot to dispensaries by spring.
“As soon as we’re approved we are prepared to get plants in the ground immediately,” she said.
Once dispensaries start selling pot, they could see demand from up to 70,000 Missouri residents with state permits to legally use marijuana for medical purposes.
As of Aug. 20, at least 69,829 people had been granted state permits to use marijuana for qualifying medical uses, according to DHSS.
Not of all of them may be hurrying to dispensaries. At least 17,517 qualified card-holders were also approved to grow a limited amount of marijuana at home, under strict regulations.
Still, that’s a sizeable demand, Gossett said.
“The amount of cultivators to the amount of possible demand means there will likely be very limited supply of marijuana out there,” he said.
EKG will travel to marijuana growers to gather a representative sample for testing at the laboratory at 2250 Welsch Industrial Court, Brown said.
The company, which also tests pharmaceuticals and medical devices, will screen pot in varying forms for pesticides, toxins, metals, moisture content and potency.
“We’re testing for all of these different things to make sure we are delivering the safest products of the patients of Missouri,” Brown said.
The ramping up of commercial marijuana businesses comes as Missouri legislators quietly wrapped up an investigation into Gov. Mike Parson’s handling of the state’s medical marijuana program.
Spurned applicants have complained about a range of issues with the grading process, and accused a contractor hired to review business applications of having a conflict of interest. The complaints led to hundreds of lawsuits costing the state $1.3 million — money that would have gone to services for veterans.
James Cummins, who is appealing the denial of his business’s application for a dispensary in Overland, citing inconsistencies in the scoring, said he doubts Missouri will be able to meet demand without licensing more businesses.
The state should remove its cap on the number of businesses allowed, he said.
“There is not going to be enough product when the market comes online and the prices will be high,” Cummins said, “and it’s just going to drive more people to the black market.”
While Missouri businesses and residents are allowed to now grow marijuana, how exactly to obtain the first seeds to plant remains a legal gray area.
Transferring seeds across state lines remains a felony, and obtaining seeds from the illicit market is illegal. Regulators are expected to look the other way while growers obtain seeds until after Dec. 31, when anyone growing marijuana legally must obtain seeds or plants from a Missouri business licensed by the state.