Md.'s marijuana laws leave unanswered questions

Doctors, suppliers, police evaluate medical use and decriminalization

  • Diferent varieties and strains of marijauna are available for paients at Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispansary in Oakland, Calif.
Diferent varieties and strains of marijauna are available… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
April 14, 2014|By Mark Puente and Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Now that the state's medical marijuana program has been revived, officials say it will take about 15 months for the first patients to buy the drug legally in Maryland. Shannon Moore hopes her twin sons survive.

Her 3-year-olds, Nicolas and Byron, already have lived longer than expected while battling as many as 30 seizures a day from Miller-Dieker syndrome, a disease that causes brain deformities. Moore hopes a marijuana extract will reduce their seizures.

"The hardest part is feeling hopeless," the Frederick resident said. "If you've done everything you could, it might not be enough."

Despite the General Assembly's actions last week in revamping the stalled medical marijuana program and decriminalizing possession of 10 grams or less of pot, many questions remain unanswered about implementing the laws. Doctors, growers and dispensaries are waiting to learn the details of regulations that will govern the fledgling medical marijuana industry. Police across the state are evaluating the impact of the decriminalization measure on crime-fighting strategies, and the statewide prosecutors organization has called for a veto by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Experiences in other states show that even after months of legislative debate in Annapolis, Maryland could face unexpected twists. When Colorado started its medical marijuana program, the electric company needed bigger transformers to power the lights at indoor marijuana farms, and growers found that they needed to put locks on trash bins because people were trying to get discarded marijuana stems and buds.

Cheverly Police Chief Harry Robshaw, a member of Maryland's Medical Marijuana Commission, faults lawmakers for not defining some key issues better.

For example, the decriminalization measure does not specify whether police can continue searching a suspect after finding marijuana weighing 10 grams or less. Should they issue a citation on the spot and leave? Or keep looking, in case the suspect has a much bigger supply?

"Nobody has the answer to that," Robshaw said. "That's what worries law enforcement."

From the outset, Maryland's medical marijuana program will have tighter controls than the one California started 18 years ago.

California regulators have no control of the estimated $1 billion industry and don't know how many growers or dispensaries operate. The California Police Chiefs Association and other lobbying groups are pushing for state oversight.

"It's chaotic and out of control," said Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano, the association's first vice president. "Anyone can obtain a recommendation for medical marijuana. There is no oversight or protection to the patient."

Dr. Paul Davies, chairman of Maryland's Medical Marijuana Commission, estimates that it will take until the third quarter of 2015 to establish the network needed to put the drug in patients' hands. The panel will develop and propose regulations by September, he said.

"We are actively putting a plan together," he said. "We're already on it."

According to Davies, this is how Maryland will form the network: Once the commission proposes the rules, they will be reviewed at several levels, including by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the attorney general's office and a legislative oversight committee. After an approval process of about four months, the commission will take applications from physicians and prospective growers and dispensers.

The legislation — which O'Malley has said he will sign into law — calls for no more than 15 growers to be licensed in the first year but gives the commission the discretion to add licenses later. Licenses will be issued after a background check.

"We're hoping there will be strong interest among physicians," Davies said, noting that there is likely to be strong demand for grower's licenses.

The commission was set up as part of last year's medical marijuana legislation, with 11 members drawn from fields such as medicine, pharmacy, law enforcement and substance abuse treatment. The revamped law expands the number to 14.

J. Darrell Carrington, lobbyist for an Anne Arundel County company that is interested in seeking a grower's license, expects significant competition for the permits — and not just from folks with a few acres and an interest in recreational marijuana.

"These are apples and oranges," he said. "We are looking to make medicine for people."

Carrington, who represents CFB Consulting in Pasadena, said that means growers will need secure, sterile, indoor facilities and will have to have extensive testing done by independent laboratories.

In Colorado, it's common for growers to spend nearly $500,000 to enter the business, according to the Marijuana Industry Group, which represents growers and patients in the state. The high costs come from the required seed-to-sale tracking system, video surveillance and irrigation networks, said Mike Elliott, the executive director.

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