In Maryland, Products and Patients Are Flowing to Dispensaries

Louise Fisher and William Askinazi, who are co-owners of Potomac Holistics, stand in the store in Rockville, Md., on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, hours before they were scheduled to begin selling medical cannabis, among the first dispensaries in the state to do so. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

As Maryland wraps up the state’s first month of medical cannabis sales, patients and dispensary owners are enjoying their hard-won access and learning from the industry’s early-day glitches.

'It was an amazing feeling after all this time. Mostly, patients are just happy to finally have a non-opiate option.'
Candice Junkin, Southern Maryland Relief

Medical cannabis sales opened on December 1, after a delay of more than four years. The state’s original medical cannabis law passed in 2013.

Despite some opening day product rationing and a few computer glitches, advocates enjoyed the milestone.

“Shortages in the beginning aren’t all that shocking,” Kate Bell of Marijuana Policy Project told Leafly. “Right now the businesses are trying to get product on the shelves as quickly as they can. Cannabis only grows so fast, and then [it has to go to] the lab for testing.”

$60 to $67 for an Eighth

Amy Mellen was feeling “optimistic” and “emotional” after her first purchase as a patient at Southern Maryland Relief, a dispensary in Mechanicsville, Maryland.

“It’s great seeing folks finally have access in the state,” Mellen said. “They’ve been working hard and waiting for over four years since it was voted in. It was emotional seeing folks who had waited so long for this. Many teared up at the counter, looking forward to the prospect of getting their lives back, and dumping some of the pharmaceuticals that robbed them of so much.”

Her first purchase included THC/CBD tablets and an eighth of an ounce  of Jilly Bean in flower form. An eighth of flower fetched between $60-$67 during opening week.

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An Oregon, transplant, Mellen noted that Maryland’s nascent program wasn’t yet West Coast caliber.

“The Jelly Bean smoked smooth, didn’t make me cough, and wasn’t harsh at all,” Mellen explained. “Seemed just a bit green to me. I know growers were pushed to get product on the shelf, so I can see how this could happen. As soon as we see more production I’m optimistic things will get better, but it’s gonna take some time.”

When nearby New Jersey rolled out their medical cannabis program in 2013, customers also shelled out $60 for an eighth of cannabis flower . Four years later, $60 gets you a quarter-ounce in the Garden State.

“I’m eager to try concentrates as they come out in the next few weeks,” Mellen added.

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A Historic Opening

Candice Junkin directs community outreach for Southern Maryland Relief. “I’m very emotional,” she told Leafly. “It was an amazing feeling after all this time. To see all those faces—no one was turned away—and to know they might get some relief. Mostly, patients are just happy to finally have a non-opiate option.”

This region has been hit hard by the opiate crisis. Like many here, Junkin knows a number of friends, neighbors, and classmates personally affected by opioid overdose fatalities.

“Often the people who need cannabis therapy the most can’t afford it,” she said. “Meanwhile, there’s (insurance) coverage for prescription opiates for veterans, the elderly, and folks on Medicaid. So we need to bring that cost down. People in St. Mary’s County deserve non-opioid, non-toxic options for their pain.”

Junkin savored Maryland’s milestone “for about a day” on December 1. But she couldn’t  rest on that victory with so much at stake.

“The fight isn’t over yet,” she said. “This program is brand new and we’ll improve it, especially with Washington DC right next door. For starters, we still need homegrow, and insurance coverage, and smaller-batch cultivators.”

“But our foot’s in the door. And that feels awesome.”

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22 Dispensaries for 6 Million People

Maryland’s program doesn’t allow patients to grow their own cannabis. Instead, they’ll rely on dispensaries for their medicine. Ten dispensaries opened their doors during the first week of December; a total of 22 were licensed as of Dec. 19. That’s not a whole lot to serve a state population of 6 million. Arizona, with a similar state population, has about 110 dispensaries operating around the state.

“In Maryland, there are very liberal qualifying conditions,” dispensary owner William Askinazi told Associated Press. Doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, and midwives alike can recommend medical cannabis to any patient with a “condition that is severe, for which other medical treatments have been ineffective, and if the symptoms ‘reasonably can be expected to be relieved’ by the medical use of cannabis.”

This, in addition to ailments cited in the legislation including cancer, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorders, PTSD, and glaucoma.

There’s currently no relief for out-of-state patients, however. “Current law allows (out-of-state) patients getting medical treatment in Maryland to participate in the program, but the regulators dragged their feet on rules to implement that,” Bell said.

She expects regulators to revisit that issue in the near future. In the meantime, creating something like reciprocity would require additional legislation.

“Allowing non-residents to purchase cannabis in Maryland would have to be done by statute,” Bell said. “Because the certifying doctor has to be a Maryland doctor under current law.”

Maryland is a very small state. You needn’t drive far before you’re in an another state with different rules. In the Mid-Atlantic, many people cross multiple state lines every day as they go about their lives. That’s problematic for medical cannabis users, whose rights end where the next state begins.

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Inventory Issues

Keeping the shelves fully stocked has been a challenge, according to Peggy Danielson, Southern Maryland Relief’s chief operating officer.

“The biggest shortage is flowers,” she told Leafly. “We’ll get a supply that lasts for a few days and then it gets low again and we wait for the next delivery. Right now, so long as we have some flowers for our patients, they’re understanding.”

Also in stock: vape cartridges, pre-rolls, THC/CBD tables, and elixirs.

“The half-tea, half-lemonade flavor is selling just great,” Danielson noted.

Concentrates are permitted by law but not available yet.

“Inventory at this point is not an exact science,” Danielson told Leafly. “I call the growers and dispensers and ask what they’ve got. Some growers haven’t had their first harvest yet. Once they’re all open, we’ll pick and choose. So now we have a little of everything”

Opening week presented technical issues as well.

“Right now, the big problem is the PoS at each dispensary,” she said, referring to point-of-sale software. “These systems, they’re new and not yet integrated into Maryland’s seed-to-sale software.”

“Still,” she added, “every day presents fewer issues.”

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Next Up: Full Legalization

According to Maryland NORML’s Luke Jones, the best way to improve Maryland’s medical program is to legalize cannabis altogether.

“Marylanders will need to demand that legislators change the law,” Jones told Leafly. “Or that they let the voters decide through a constitutional amendment ballot measure, just like they did to approve the gaming industry in 2008.”

So don’t blink. Because the beginning of the end of cannabis prohibition in Maryland starts next month.

“Maryland NORML, and our partners in the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition, are planning to make an all-out push for reform,” Jones said. “And to make legal access to safe, convenient, affordable, and high quality cannabis for responsible adult use a legislative priority in Maryland’s 2018 legislative session.”

Ending 2017 on a High Note

As December drew to a close, Peggy Danielson from Southern Maryland Relief was feeling more upbeat.

“Each day gets a little easier and a little bit better,” she told Leafly. “Another grower comes on line with their first harvest and that’s progress,”

Unfortunately, not all of the early cannabis crops are passing muster with the state’s testing regulations.

Danielson was hopeful this week after learning that one grower’s initial harvest yielded 20 pounds of flower. That optimism was took a hit when only about one-quarter of the harvest was approved for consumption.

“Each time a new harvest hits, we hope for the best,” Danielson added. “It’s not ideal. Our choices and still limited. My greatest concern is for our sickest patients who need concentrates which aren’t rolled out yet as growers perfect flowers first.”

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That included patients using cannabis therapy as an alternative to opiates.

“My fear is that without an option they can actually afford, patients will go from prescriptions opioids to heroin,” Danielson said.

Danielson is also dealing with geographical challenges. As the name suggests, Southern Maryland Relief sits on the southern tip of the state in Mechanicsville. Most of Maryland’s dispensaries are clustered in the Baltimore/DC region.

“Because of our location in Southern Maryland, it feels like we get the crumbs of what’s left over,” she said. “The grows in Maryland aren’t distributed evenly, geographically, and that puts us at a disadvantage.”

She remains undaunted.

“We’re still fighting hard to for local grows, more licenses to do that, to be more competitive and bring down the costs for our patients. That fight goes on in Annapolis in 2018.”