Maryland Prepares to Issue Medical Marijuana Licenses: The Leafly Legalization RoundupLisa RoughSeptember 28, 2015
Summer’s end brings a new beginning and fervor to the cannabis movement. Maryland’s medical marijuana program is finally standing up on steady legs and ready to take that next step into issuing medical marijuana licenses, Michigan legislators are making a renewed attempt to clarify the murky law on dispensaries and edibles, and across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom’s cannabis community has gained a new leader towards drug policy reform with some impressive credentials. We’re making progress by leaps and bounds – keep informed with this week's roundup of legislative updates!
U.S. Cannabis Updates
A man accused of running a marijuana grow operation in Southwest Miami-Dade is using the example of Colorado’s established medical and recreational marijuana industry as part of his defense. The man was growing 15 plants with an expected yield of 30 pounds of usable cannabis, but he insists that the cannabis was only to ease the pain of his wife, Maria Varona, who was diagnosed with cancer. Prosecutors claim that it was a sophisticated operation, with high-powered lights and carbon filters for the smell.
However, a witness for the defense, Bruce Vanaman, a Colorado cannabis businessman and cancer patient, testified that the operation was low-tech and amateur in comparison to Colorado’s sophisticated cannabis farms. “It’s a garden,” he told defense attorney Adam Bair.
Ms. Varona was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and used cannabis-infused products in Venezuela while undergoing treatment, but has had to travel to Colorado in order to maintain a supply of medical cannabis. Florida passed a law in 2014 which allows medicinal cannabis with low-THC and high-CBD content, but the state has not issued licenses for production yet.
Nearly two and a half years after the passage of Maryland’s medical marijuana law, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is ready to issue business licenses to medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers. The state regulations will allow for 15 cultivation centers and 94 dispensaries, with two allowed per state Senate district. Although the program plans to issue the licenses within the next month, there is not a set date for when they will begin accepting applications. Medicinal cannabis is expected to be available to qualified patients by the end of 2016.
The implementation of the program is making county legislators nervous about the potential rise in crime, with many local legislators considering a ban on dispensaries. Counties are forbidden to prohibit legal businesses without special circumstances, and state Senator Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore) has pulled out all of the stops with a new bill that would bar local governments from blocking medical cannabis access to qualifying patients – essentially, a ban on bans.
Michigan's House Judiciary Committee just sent three bills to the full House floor for consideration that would officially legalize dispensaries, as well as cannabis-infused edibles. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act was approved by voters in 2008, but the law does not make mention of medical dispensaries, nor of regulations on edibles or extracted oils and concentrates. The program has been fraught with issues due to the lack of definition in the law, with many dispensary owners operating without any legal protections, guidelines, or regulations.
The main piece of proposed legislature would introduce an eight percent excise tax and a mandatory system for tracking all cannabis products. This legislation would also create a Medical Marihuana State Board to oversee the program and issue the five different license types:
- Provisioning center
- Secure transporter
- Safety compliance facility
Albuquerque city council voted in a narrow 5-4 majority to make the possession of small amounts of cannabis a civil offense with a $25 fine (unless the person has a medical marijuana recommendation) instead of possible jail time. The committee also adopted a resolution to make cannabis possession the lowest priority for law enforcement in the city.
While it was found during the 2014 election that 60 percent of Bernadillo County supported cannabis decriminalization, unfortunately, not everyone in the state feels that way. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has said that even if the House and Senate both pass the bill, he would veto the law just as he vetoed a similar decriminalization measure introduced last year, due to the conflict between state and federal law.
Despite the legalization of cannabis in Oregon (for which sales will begin this week), it has come to light that more than $750,000 in funding from the DEA’s Domestic Marijuana Eradication/Suppression Program is being sent to police in Oregon for the purposes of searching for and destroying cannabis operations. The majority of the funds are spent on the use of helicopters to seek outdoor grow sites, although state records reflect a decrease in the number of cannabis plants destroyed per year, from 26,597 down to 16,067 plants. Each plant costs taxpayers approximately $60 to destroy.
Many of the previous growing operations that were discovered in Oregon were connected to violent Mexican drug cartels; however, legalization means that many criminal gangs are moving away from cannabis and focusing on trafficking other illegal drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine. Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls said of the funding, “When there were huge cartel problems, we needed that money. But now we don’t.”
Washington legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, but there appears to be an unexpected clause in the newest marijuana law, Senate Bill 5052, that is causing outrage and concern in Washington’s cannabis community. If a minor in Washington is caught using cannabis recreationally, he or she faces a felony conviction. The concern came to light when a prosecutor in Asotin County charged three teenagers with possession of cannabis. Instead of looking at a misdemeanor with a possibility of three months in jail, the teenagers faced a Class C felony, which carries the heavy maximum sentence of five years in jail.
Governor Jay Inslee’s office expressed surprise, and even the enforcement chief of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, Justin Nordhorn, was taken aback that the wording of the law does, in fact, specify that minors shall be charged with a felony for cannabis possession. The sponsor of the law, Senator Ann Rivers (R-La Center), said that the wording was intentional to help stymie the use of cannabis among youth. It is expected that the current cannabis regulations will be amended further in the upcoming legislative session.
UPDATE: The charges against the teens have been reduced to misdemeanors, and although two of the three teens had already pled guilty, the Asotin County prosecutor is seeking to reduce those charges.
International Cannabis Updates
A newly formed cannabis law reform group called the National Cannabis Coalition will be headed up by Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable of the Cambridgeshire police. The new organization will encompass NORML UK, the UK Cannabis Social Clubs, and the United Patients Alliance, and the group will call for legal access to both recreational cannabis for adults and medicinal marijuana for patients who need it.
Lloyd plans to move the focus from grassroots protests to political campaigning and reforming UK drug policy. “A major problem in drug law reform, and the resistance to it, is that people look at people, whether they are heroin users or stoners, and think they are just not serious people,” said Lloyd, “The world is changing: Uruguay has now legalized it; you have got legal production in states in America; in half the states you can get medicinal cannabis. America is a very powerful player.”
The greatest challenge now will be to change the stereotype surrounding cannabis use and unite the many different cannabis advocates into one group with a common goal.