Maryland medical marijuana could finally become a reality next year, one of the states slowest to make the drug available for purchase after legalizing sales.
In 2016, regulators awarded long-awaited licenses to grow, process and sell cannabis while grappling with fallout from those shut out of the potentially lucrative industry. Now selected businesses are racing to set up facilities and pass final inspections so the first seeds can be planted and flowers can hit the shelves by the end of 2017, four years after lawmakers legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes.
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“For many of us who have been along this journey for a long time, that we have seen licenses issued is a light at the end of the tunnel for patient access,” said Darrell Carrington, a medical marijuana lobbyist who leads the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association.
But ongoing litigation from three companies denied growing licenses, and looming legislation to address the lack of minority-owned marijuana firms, coulddelay the program.
As in 26 other states and the District of Columbia, the legal medical marijuana program in Maryland also hinges on the federal government continuing to turn a blind eye to businesses that are violating the federal marijuana prohibition. It’s unclear whether that will change in the presidency of Donald Trump, who has supported medical marijuana but tapped marijuana legalization opponent Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as his attorney general.
Maryland marijuana regulators say the time spent exhaustively vetting businesses and developing strict oversight of their operations will end in one of the nation’s most reputable legal pot programs.
“It’s no secret that marijuana has a long-documented black market history,” said Patrick Jameson, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission and a former state trooper. “The Commission understands that medical cannabis can be controversial, but it intends to make Maryland’s program a high-functioning, professional, industry-leading medical program.”
Officials say they will closely monitor marijuana at every stage of the marketplace, from how much is grown to how much is sold, using a tracking system in place in Colorado meant to stop illegal diversions of the drug and cash.
In addition, Maryland is one of few states to require that marijuana be tested by an independent laboratory before it can be sold, an attempt to avoid poor-quality cannabis containing excessive amounts of pesticides.
“The Commission and I understand that people are suffering and we want to make the program operational as soon as possible,” said Paul Davies, chair of the 16-member marijuana commission. “Hopefully, during the summer of 2017 medical cannabis will become available to patients.”
He and others said it is not yet clear how the program could be affected by legislation proposed during the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 11 in Annapolis.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, who rallied black lawmakers behind the medical marijuana cause, is angry that no companies led by African-Americans won grower licenses even after she pushed for legislative language to ensure minority participation.
She is using her new perch as head of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland to push for an overhaul of the cannabis commission and the diversification of the industry.
Glenn says she wants to void existing licenses and create a quicker, race-conscious process for approving marijuana growers – changes that advocates of medical cannabis warn could spur further delays.
“Unfortunately, Maryland has had one of the slowest rollouts of a program like this in the country,” said Kate Bell, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project. “There are already patients who passed away waiting for this program. For very sick people, any delay can be significant.”
It remains unclear what role Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, will play in supporting or opposing any new legislation. Morhaim, who was the legislature’s chief proponent for medical cannabis, is affiliated with a marijuana company and has faced scrutiny from his legislative colleagues over his dual roles. He did not respond to a request for comment on the Black Caucus’s efforts, or his legislative priorities for the coming year.
Maryland lawmakers first passed a law in 2013 allowing academic medical marijuana programs. The state authorized private medical marijuana businesses the next year, after no universities expressed interest in participating in the 2013 effort.
Other states have moved more quickly to get businesses up and running, advocates say. New York and Minnesota, for example, legalized medical marijuana in 2014, and already have the drug available for purchase for purchase with a doctor’s recommendation.
Glenn insists her efforts to diversify the industry will not drive further delays. The issue is personal for her – the cannabis commission is named after her mother, Natalie LaPrade, who died of cancer before she could use medical marijuana to alleviate her pain.
“I had my mother’s picture with me when the bill was signed into law; I never forget the pain and suffering that people go through every day,” Glenn said. “We can get medicine in the hands of our patients, but we can do it with the correct amount of diversity.”
Commission officials have defended their process for awarding licenses, and plan to hire a diversity consultant to advise them on ways to help boost minority participation in the industry.
Any attempts to redistribute or expand the number of licenses probably will face resistance from the companies that have won approval to grow and process.
Michael Bronfein, a prolific donor to Maryland Democrats who is chief executive of Curio Wellness, has been recruiting growers and processors to form a trade association and hire lobbyists to represent their interests in Annapolis.
At an October panel in Baltimore, he opposed expanding the number of cannabis growers in the coming year, according to news reports. He declined to comment for this article, citing a busy schedule.
Marijuana regulators say the success of the program depends on interest from patients and their doctors – and the quality of the businesses supplying them.
As of December, just 171 physicians have signed up to recommend medical cannabis – a number regulators expect to grow once the drug is available.
Other medical professionals – including nurse practitioners, dentists and podiatrists – can start signing up in June.
Those who want to purchase medical marijuana will have to enroll in a patient registry that will also be set up in 2017. Patients must have a Maryland physician registered with the commission and a qualifying medical condition, including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and seizures.
Commission officials warn that businesses currently trying to sell medical marijuana patient identification cards are scams.
“After all of the politics,” said Jameson, “this program is about supply and demand.”
Fenit Nirappil covers politics and government in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. He previously covered the California statehouse and suburban government outside Portland, Ore. Follow Fenit on Twitter @FenitN.