Med­i­cal cannabis nears point of sale

The Star Democrat - - FRONT PAGE - By OLUWATOMIKE ADEBOYEJO

Af­ter a four-year wait to pro­vide med­i­cal cannabis to pa­tients, the drug could be avail­able to Mary­lan­ders as early as this month, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try stake­hold­ers. How­ever, some law­mak­ers said they are plan­ning to in­tro­duce a bill early next ses­sion to grant li­censes to African-Amer­i­can busi­ness own­ers.

AN­NAPO­LIS — Af­ter a four-year wait to pro­vide med­i­cal cannabis to pa­tients, the drug could be avail­able to Mary­lan­ders as early as this month, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try stake­hold­ers.

“I think we could see prod­uct in Novem­ber, with in­crease in De­cem­ber and a steady flow from all op­er­a­tors in the new year,” said Wendy Bron­fein, the mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for Cu­rio Well­ness, a com­pany in Lutherville that was awarded li­censes to cul­ti­vate and process med­i­cal mar­i­juana.

How­ever, racial di­ver­sity in the state’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try is want­ing, and some law­mak­ers said they are plan­ning to in­tro­duce a bill early next ses­sion to grant li­censes to African-Amer­i­can busi­ness own­ers.

A dis­par­ity study or­dered by Repub­li­can Gov. Larry Ho­gan in April and due in De­cem­ber fo­cuses on whether mi­nori­ties who sought a li­cense in the cannabis in­dus­try were at a dis­ad­van­tage.

The study was prompted af­ter the Mary­land Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus raised con­cerns about the lack of African-Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in the in­dus­try.

Of the 321 busi­ness own­ers granted pre­lim­i­nary li­censes to grow, dis­trib­ute or process the drug, 208 were white men or women and the re­main­ing 113 iden­ti­fied as a mem­ber of a mi­nor­ity group or as mul­tira­cial. Of these, 55 — about 17 per­cent — were black men and women, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion.

“It’s shame­ful in a state like Mary­land where we have onethird of the pop­u­la­tion of the state, one-third is African Amer­i­can,” said Del­e­gate Ch­eryl Glenn, D-Bal­ti­more, chair­woman of the Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus.

As the Gen­eral Assem­bly’s Jan­uary ses­sion ap­proaches, mem­bers of the Black Cau­cus told the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice they have be­gun draft­ing a bill that would award 10 new li­censes for grow­ers and pro­ces­sors specif­i­cally tar­geted at African-Amer­i­cans in­ter­ested in the in­dus­try.

They will move for­ward with their leg­is­la­tion re­gard­less of the out­come of Ho­gan’s dis­par­ity study, Glenn said.

“I will bank on it that we’ll come away from the ta­ble with five new li­censes for grow­ers and five new li­censes for pro­ces­sors that will be awarded based on the re­sults of the dis­par­ity study. What does that mean? That means these li­censes will go to, in large part, African Amer­i­cans,” said Glenn.

A weighted scor­ing sys­tem will give busi­nesses an ad­van­tage of be­ing awarded a par­tic­u­lar li­cense if they have a cer­tain per­cent­age of African-Amer­i­can own­er­ship, Glenn said.

A “com­pas­sion­ate use fund” will be part of the leg­is­la­tion in or­der to make med­i­cal mar­i­juana af­ford- able for pa­tients in Mary­land. The fund will be fi­nanced based on the fees that li­censees in the in­dus­try must pay, Glenn said.

“Mar­i­juana is still an il­le­gal drug, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Your in­sur­ance will not pay for mar­i­juana even though it is med­i­cal mar­i­juana. So what does that mean? That means it be­comes a rich man’s strug­gle. We’re not gonna have that,” said Glenn, whose mother died of can­cer and is the com­mis­sion’s name­sake.

Mary­lan­ders who are in­sured through the state’s Medi­care and Med­i­caid pro­grams will not be cov­ered for med­i­cal cannabis, said Brit­tany Fowler, spokes­woman for the Mary­land health de­part­ment.

The leg­is­la­tion has been num­bered Se­nate Bill 1 and House Bill 2, and should gain ini­tial ap­proval as an emer­gency bill dur­ing a joint hear­ing by the House and the Se­nate dur­ing the first weeks of the ses­sion — which is sched­uled to start Jan. 10 — Glenn said.

Mem­bers of the Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus said they in­tend to use the up­com­ing elec­tion as lever­age for the bill.

“Next year is elec­tion year … so tim­ing is every­thing … I am very, very sure that this is go­ing to be taken care of,” Glenn said.

Cannabis com­pa­nies have said that the drug is likely to be avail­able to pa­tients this month.

For­wardGro Inc., the first li­censed med­i­cal mar­i­juana grower, suc­cess­fully passed the state’s cannabis assess­ment this year, said Dar­rell Car­ring­ton, the med­i­cal cannabis di­rec­tor of Green­will Con­sult­ing Group LLC.

Pa­tients will be able to get cannabis in a va­ri­ety of forms such as lo­tion, pills and trans­der­mal patches, said Michael Klein, the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Well­ness So­lu­tions in Fred­er­ick.

The in­dus­try has been pro­jected to open to­ward the end of the year, ac­cord­ing to Brian Lopez, the chair­man of the Mary­land Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion.

“The in­dus­try is start­ing to move for­ward,” Lopez said late last month. “We hope we are go­ing to have an­other 20 to 30 dis­pen­saries by the end of the year and at that point we will have an in­dus­try that is start­ing to re­ceive prod­uct con­sis­tently around the state. But with that we are go­ing to also, I’m sure, see some grow­ing pains.”

Mary­land still faces a wide range of chal­lenges as the in­dus­try starts up. The com­mis­sion has not de­cided how to reg­u­late how dis­pen­saries will serve outof-state pa­tients, deal with the green waste from the cannabis, or ad­dress fraud­u­lent ac­tiv­ity within the in­dus­try, said Lopez.

“I’m sure we are go­ing to hit road­blocks, but we plan to work through them in a very con­sis­tent man­ner and with dili­gence,” Lopez said.

Mary­land is con­sid­ered to have one of the slow­est med­i­cal cannabis roll­outs in the na­tion, ham­pered by sev­eral de­lays that arose dur­ing the four-year process since it was le­gal­ized.

Stake­hold­ers in the in­dus­try have pointed to the lack of fund­ing of the Mary­land Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion in its be­gin­ning stages, and to law­suits filed against the com­mis­sion, as ma­jor stum­bling blocks.

In 2016, GTI — Green Thumb In­dus­tries — a Bethesda, Mary­land-based com­pany that was orig­i­nally awarded pre-ap­proved li­censes as a grower, filed a law­suit against the com­mis­sion for re­tract­ing its li­censes in or­der to cre­ate ge­o­graph­i­cal di­ver­sity.

The com­mis­sion, which as of mid-2017 had 10 new mem­bers, made the de­ci­sion to re­tract the li­cense from GTI af­ter the Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian E. Frosh stated in 2016 that the com­mis­sion must en­sure ge­o­graph­i­cal di­ver­sity when choos­ing ap­pli­cants.

GTI at­tempted to work with the Black Cau­cus to re­verse the de­ci­sion dur­ing the 2017 Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion through leg­is­la­tion, which would have awarded them a li­cense, said Del­e­gate Pamela Queen D-Mont­gomery, fi­nan­cial sec­re­tary for the Black Cau­cus.

The leg­is­la­tion failed in the last 90 min­utes of the ses­sion and there were no ad­di­tional med­i­cal mar­i­juana grow­ing li­censes given to any com­pa­nies owned by mi­nori­ties, Queen said.

The Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus ear­lier this year asked Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince Ge­orge’s, Charles and Calvert, and Speaker of the House Michael Busch, D-Anne Arun­del, to re­con­vene the Gen­eral Assem­bly to An­napo­lis for a one-day ses­sion to pass a law ex­pand­ing the med­i­cal mar­i­juana in­dus­try. How­ever, the re­quest was de­nied.

In an­other law­suit against the com­mis­sion, filed in Oc­to­ber 2016 by Al­ter­na­tive Medicine Mary­land, a pre­dom­i­nately AfricanAmer­i­can owned busi­ness, Judge Barry Wil­liams ruled in May that if he finds that the com­mis­sion un­law­fully dis­re­garded racial di­ver­sity dur­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion process for li­censes he re­serves the right to re­voke the li­censes of those who were pre-ap­proved.

This could ul­ti­mately shut down the in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to John Pica, a lob­by­ist and at­tor­ney rep- re­sent­ing Al­ter­na­tive Medicine Mary­land.

Frosh also had said it would be un­law­ful to seek racial di­ver­sity in the ap­pli­ca­tion process with­out there be­ing a his­tory of racial dis­par­i­ties in the nascent cannabis in­dus­try.

“While it is still too soon to say for cer­tain when we can ex­pect a fi­nal analysis, we are en­cour­aged and grate­ful to col­lab­o­rate with these of­fices as we pur­sue this im­por­tant work,” said Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Pa­trick Jame­son, who an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion from the com­mis­sion on Thurs­day.

Queen said she thinks that a ma­jor is­sue that neg­a­tively af­fected the in­dus­try was the poor fund­ing the com­mis­sion ini­tially re­ceived from the state.

When the panel was cre­ated as the Natalie M. LaPrade Med­i­cal Mar­i­juana Com­mis­sion in 2013, its pur­pose was to over­see aca­demic med­i­cal in­tu­itions in dis­tribut­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana. How­ever, the in­sti­tu­tions were un­will­ing to dis­trib­ute the drug be­cause it is il­le­gal un­der fed­eral law.

In 2015, when the com­mis­sion was recre­ated as the Natalie M. LaPrade Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion, they were given a greater re­spon­si­bil­ity to eval­u­ate and cer­tify busi­nesses to grow, process and dis­trib­ute the drug.

The com­mis­sion re­ceived $140,795 in fis­cal year 2015 and $2,540,331 in fis­cal year 2017. The in­crease of fund­ing over time was used to hire more em­ploy­ees, con­trac­tual la­bor, of­fice spa­ces that can sup­port the grow­ing staff, travel ex­penses and to pay Tow­son Univer­sity for scor­ing li­cense ap­pli­ca­tions for the in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to Mary­land De­part­ment of Bud­get and Man­age­ment.

PHOTO BY LEANN SCHENKE

Paige Colen of Hip­po­cratic Growth LLC gives a his­tory les­son ear­lier this year at the Ho­tel Im­pe­rial in Ch­ester­town on the uses of cannabis in Amer­ica.

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