Maryland's medical marijuana program cleared a key hurdle Thursday as a state panel approved draft rules to govern the new businesses.
The medical marijuana commission set license fees for growers and dispensaries — at rates among the highest in the country — and developed rules for patients to obtain the drug in either a smokable or liquid form, among other new regulations.
While the rules must clear bureaucratic hoops, Thursday's vote marks a significant milestone for patients who have waited years for the state to act. The panel has at least twice delayed approving the regulations, which were due nearly two months ago, and the decision comes during the state's second attempt in as many years to create a viable medical marijuana system.
The drug is not expected to be available to patients until 2016.
The panel did not create rules for the sale of edible marijuana products such as brownies and lollipops, saying such regulations were too complicated to draft in the time available.
Advocates for the long-delayed program have complained that the panel's planned license fees for growers and dispensaries are too high and might scare away small entrepreneurs. The commission decided Thursday to keep the fees as proposed.
"We want to make this a success for the state of Maryland, not a failed program because we had inadequate financing," said the commission chairman, Dr. Paul W. Davies. "We want to get this program up and running, and we want to get marijuana in the hands of patients. We want to have growers happy, we want to have dispensers happy."
Davies said members decided they needed to make sure the commission has the resources it needs to oversee a highly regulated industry. The proposed two-year license fees — $125,000 for growers and $40,000 for dispensaries — are higher than any other state's except Illinois.
The panel said the fees had to be high enough to make the program self-sufficient, which is a condition the General Assembly put on the program.
While some advocates have contended that the fees are too high, others see them as necessary to get the program off the ground.
"Would I like to pay $10,000? Gosh yes," said John Murphy, a flower farmer on the Eastern Shore who wants to start a marijuana-growing operation. "But this doesn't seem like too much for what we have to do."
John Pica, an Annapolis lobbyist who represents investors planning to build a dispensary and growing operation in Baltimore, said his clients dropped their objection to the "stiff fees" after talking with consultants.
"You can still be successful in Maryland because it's a highly regulated state," Pica said. "With only 15 growers, and the perceived demand, there may be plenty of business to go around."
Thursday's vote sends the regulations to Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein and the state's attorney general for review before they are officially proposed. Another public review of the regulations must take place before they are formally adopted, a process expected to take at least a few more months.
It will be up to the next health secretary, to be appointed by Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, to give final approval to the rules.
Hogan has said he would not talk about his administration's policies until after his Jan. 21 inauguration. A Hogan spokeswoman, Erin Montgomery, said Thursday the governor-elect "has said on the campaign trail that he believes some patients do benefit from medical marijuana."
Maryland struggled for years with how to create a medical marijuana program. A law that finally passed in 2013 relied on academic centers to distribute the drug, but none volunteered. This year, state lawmakers recrafted the program to allow certified physicians to recommend marijuana to qualified patients.
"Medicinal marijuana needs to be implemented in Maryland yesterday," Dr. William J. Alloway, chair of the Maryland Hemp & Cannabis Business Association, said in a statement. "Every day, I have to tell patients seeking to safely reduce pain and inflammation that Maryland is still not ready."
The law calls for 15 growers and an unspecified number of dispensaries to be opened across the state. The Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission, named for the late mother of a state legislator, also approved rules for training physicians and the amount of marijuana a patient can pick up in a month.
The commission is charged with not only crafting the rules to govern buying and selling marijuana, but overseeing the industry once it's up and running.
Davies, the commission chairman, said he plans to take a day off Friday before diving into the next stage: creating an IT system to manage patient and dispensary information, hiring inspectors and staff, and setting up applications for growers and dispensaries. Davies said applications should be ready by the middle of next year.