Hoping to halt cannabis industry outages, regulators disable automated patient-tracking tool for dispensaries

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Photo via Dank Depot/Flickr

As of this morning, the software company overseeing Maryland’s medical cannabis industry has temporarily disabled a tool that lets dispensaries automatically ensure patients aren’t purchasing more than their prescribed limit of marijuana.

Until the tool—known technically as an application programming interface (API)—is restored, retailers will need to manually type a patient’s identification number into a state database and check their purchase history to be sure they’re not selling someone more cannabis than what’s allowed.

Regulators say disabling the API will help halt a tide of ongoing server outages and disruptions, some lasting hours at a time, that have forced dispensaries to turn away patients. The cost of the disruptions has been two-fold, with patients—some of whom travel for hours from rural areas to buy medicine for ailments like chronic pain, insomnia and glaucoma—being left empty-handed, and dispensaries losing, at times, tens of thousands of dollars in potential sales in a single day.

Officials have said the outages stem from an overwhelming amount of server traffic on the state’s cannabis-regulation software, Metrc, directed by the API.

“The intent of disabling the API is to make the system more reliable so that patient purchases can be completed,” says Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) Executive Director Joy Strand. “It is going to reduce the amount of traffic on the system.”

But some dispensaries and software firms say the change presents an added risk for human error if they fail to properly check a patient’s purchase history and end up selling them more than they’re allowed. That could leave dispensaries with expensive fines if they’re found to have violated state rules.

Connor Whelton, founder and co-owner of ReLeaf Shop in Mount Vernon, called the rule change “cumbersome.”

“We’re already in such a highly regulated industry, and we try to do everything we can do stay in compliance,” he said. “This just adds an extra step where something could go wrong.”

In Maryland, a doctor or provider licensed by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission sets a prescription limit for a registered patient—for example, 120 grams of marijuana every 30 days. The commission works with Metrc, a form of software owned by Florida-based Franwell, to track all cannabis inventory on the supply chain and retail sides, as well as patients’ prescription limits.

It’s on dispensaries to make sure they don’t break the rules. And they have point-of-sale software to help them do just that, such as GreenBits, headquartered in San Jose, California, or BryteMaps, based in Hunt Valley.

These companies will still be helping dispensaries to track their inventory in real time for Metrc whenever they make a sale. But until Metrc restores the API, they won’t be able to automatically ensure dispensaries are complying with patient sales rules.

Metrc sent out a bulletin July 3 about the API, informing dispensaries and point-of-sale software integrators that “any calls” using the tool “will result in an error, and no patient limits will be available via this endpoint.” The change took effect today.

“It moves the state further away from the ideal solution,” argues Ben Curren, CEO of Green Bits. “It’s now saying, Hey, it used to be automated and people couldn’t make mistakes, and now we’re going to make it so that people have to manually do it, so there’s a high chance of a mistake.'”

“It’s pretty much on the honor system now.”

An executive at a Maryland cannabis company who requested anonymity for fear of harming the company’s relationship with the MMCC called disabling the API “an incredibly drastic step” to deal with the outages.

“From a compliance point of view, the minute you start forcing employees to manually input and check certain data, my opportunity for faults and errors increases tremendously,” the executive said.

State regulations say a dispensary that violates MMCC operating requirements, after receiving a written notice and a hearing, can face a fine of up to $5,000 per violation.

Asked whether the move could put dispensaries at increased risk of incurring penalties, Strand replied, “All dispensaries are expected to follow the regulations.” However, she offered some assurance that the retailers won’t be immediately punished if they fall out of compliance.

“We understand there may be human error from time to time. However, we expect that a dispensary will correct those errors when they are identified,” she said.

Strand later added, “If there is human error, which is bound to occur, we’re going to work with the dispensaries.”

BryteMaps CEO Bryan Lopez noted the state’s real-time tracking requirement for patient sales, which brings the extra step of checking on their limits, is a unique feature for Metrc.

A half-dozen other states use the software for seed-to-sale tracking of cannabis, but Maryland was the first to employ that degree of scrutiny, Lopez said.

“When you’re dealing with that type of implementation, there are going to be technical challenges that are going to need to be addressed,” he said. The platform that the MMCC and Metrc have put together is “special,” he said, “but the system needs some work done to it.”

Curren says Maryland’s Metrc system could address the server traffic issue with “caching,” which would reduce the amount of calculation for checking patient sales records every time the API is used. (For example, it would show a patient had purchased 14 grams in total so far, rather than adding up two purchases of seven grams, which is how the API presently works.)

Curren also says the MMCC could pay for more servers for Metrc to give it extra capacity, enabling it to handle all of the traffic from dispensaries without disruption. “If you just increase the raw horsepower of going through the stuff in line, nothing ever backs up, so there are no more outages.”

Without offering specifics, Strand said “the commission and Metrc are working together to explore several options for a long-term solution.”.”

Ultimately, the outages and compliance questions must be resolved for the sake of Maryland’s nearly 47,000 registered patients, Lopez said.

“In the end, this is about patients. It’s about serving patients. This is about doing the right thing.”

Ethan McLeod
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