No licenses yet for Harford medical marijuana dispensaries

No licenses have been issued for medical marijuana dispensaries, growers or processors based in Harford County, but the state's licensing process is beginning to pick up steam with final approvals granted for a handful of licenses earlier this week during a meeting of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission in Bel Air.

The commission, which has been holding its meetings in different parts of the state, is scheduled to meet again in Bel Air on Aug. 28 regarding more final approvals.

Medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland in 2013 with approval by the General Assembly.

"I wish the process would speed up — you have patients that need it," state Sen. J.B. Jennings, who represents eastern Baltimore County and western Harford in Annapolis, said. He voted for the legislation four years ago.

The state allows up to two dispensaries in each of Maryland's 47 senatorial districts. Harford County is covered by three — District 7, which Jennings represents, District 34, represented by Sen. Robert Cassilly and District 35, represented by Sen. Wayne Norman.

There is still a chance there could be at least two dispensaries in Harford, as District 34 covers central and southern Harford. District 35 covers eastern Harford and western Cecil County.

More than 100 dispensary applicants have been pre-approved by the commission, including 10 growers who also want to operate dispensaries — the two-per-district limit applies to standalone dispensaries, according to a news release posted on the commission website.

Only one dispensary applicant has received final approval and earned a license so far.

The companies pre-approved for dispensaries in Harford's legislative districts are Chesapeake Health Sciences and Meshow LLC in District 7, Blue Mountain LLC and Revolution Maryland Retail LLC in District 34 and then Four Green Fields LLC and Nature Care & Wellness LLC in District 35, according to the commission's website.

No Harford County-based growers or processors have been pre-approved, according to Mary-jo Mather, director of administration for the commission.

Pre-approval is the first part of the state's two-stage application process. Those who clear the first stage have submitted their initial applications, proof that they are properly financed and have passed criminal background checks, according to Mather.

The second stage involves a much more detailed review of the applicants' business plans, finances and their backgrounds, as well as the backgrounds of any business associates. The applicants must also pass an inspection of their facilities before they can be licensed, according to Mather.

They must pay a license fee, too. The fee is $125,000 for growers and $40,000 for processors and dispensaries, Mather said.

The list of applicants that will be before the commission Aug. 28 is still being developed — commission staff are working on reports and inspections, she said.

Marijuana is illegal at the federal level if used for recreation. Research is being conducted on whether chemicals found in the marijuana plant, called cannabinoids, can help patients with nausea, decreased appetite, inflammation, pain, seizures, as well as addiction and mental health issues, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website.

Jennings, a Republican, said Wednesday he would "go out of my way" to get a product that could help ease a loved one's suffering from illness — he recalled watching his aunt suffer through years of treatment for cancer.

"If you had a loved one that was dying of a disease, wouldn't you want to give them whatever it would take to temper any type of ill effects?" he asked.

He compared the effects of chemotherapy to "seasickness" and said patients receiving the treatment have no desire to eat or do anything else.

Medical marijuana can help restore a patient's appetite for food, "which is what you need to develop energy to fight the disease," Jennings said.

"I've never said that it was a great idea, but I've had relatives who have succumbed to cancer, and [I'm thinking,] let's give everybody the opportunity to see how it works out," Norman, whose district includes eastern Harford and western Cecil County, said.

Norman took issue with the slow pace of the approval process. He described the Cannabis Commission as "completely dysfunctional," and noted recent issues such as legal challenges regarding how the commission approved licenses for growers, as well as a legislative effort to ensure minority business operators receive licenses.

"It's a huge investment they made," Norman said of the applicants who filed suit. "I would be concerned if I was them also — it's a mess."

Nine out of 15 growers that were pre-approved for licenses have received them as of this week — three of those firms are also licensed as processors — along with one dispensary. Four firms total have received processing licenses, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Patrick Jameson, executive director of the Baltimore-based commission, called Monday's meeting in Bel Air "a big milestone" for the approval process.

"More dispensaries will be coming online," Jameson said Wednesday. "They didn't need to be in business until there was product [from growers]."

The commission met in the Harford County Council chambers in Bel Air Monday, and it will return there Aug. 28, according to the commission website.

"We want to see this industry get up and running as soon as possible," Jameson said.

The commission will vote on more license approvals, and it will consider whether applicants who have not yet received a grower's license should receive an extension beyond the state's one-year deadline to become operational — that deadline was on Monday.

Jameson said the commission could take into consideration factors that are out of the applicants' control, such as issues with local zoning regulations, but not factors such as failure to execute a business plan or have financing lined up. Each extension will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the Harford County government, said dispensaries would fall under "specialty shop" regulations in the zoning code, just like pharmacies. Specialty shops are allowed in a variety of zoning districts, including village business, B1, B2, B3, commercial-industrial and mixed office

Growers and processors would be allowed in agricultural, CI, light industrial and general industrial districts, according to Mumby.

Mumby noted the county will review dispensaries on a case-by-case-basis "because there is nothing in the code, specifically, that speaks to the dispensaries."

Officials will also be mindful of the dispensaries' proximity to schools and houses of worship, she said.

"We don't have any plans at this time to alter the zoning code, but of course it's new," Mumby said. "It's new for everyone in the state, so the county executive wants to be thoughtful about the process."

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