As questions linger, patients register for Maryland's medical cannabis program

About 1,200 patients have registered with the state to eventually obtain medical cannabis — even as lawsuits and political fights cloud the future of the fledgling industry.

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission opened its prospective patient registry to Marylanders with last names beginning with letters A through L on Monday. Through Friday morning, more than 1,200 patients had registered, officials said Friday during a commission meeting.

The commission will open the registration process for prospective patients with names at the end of the alphabet on Monday. The registry will be open to all prospective patients on April 24. Under Maryland law, conditions that can be treated by medical marijuana include chronic pain, seizures, wasting syndrome, anorexia and other ailments.

About 250 physicians have registered to recommend medical marijuana to patients who wish to receive the drug, up from 172 physicians who had registered last November, officials said. A 2005 Supreme Court decisions prohibits doctors from prescribing marijuana — an illegal drug under federal law — but a 2002 federal appeals court decision affirmed doctors' First Amendment right to discuss marijuana with patients and recommend its use.

"We are having some good numbers that are coming in," said Patrick Jameson, executive director of the commission. "The rollout so far is going well."

Commission officials defended their work during Friday's meeting, held via teleconference.

Vice chairman Harry "Buddy" Robshaw, chief of the Cheverly police, said "disparaging and self-serving words and hints of corruption" have been leveled in recent weeks.

"We have and always will remain committed to bringing cannabis to the residents of Maryland who desperately need it," Robshaw said during the meeting.

The commission has come under fire from companies and state legislators for some decisions made in awarding companies preliminary licenses to grow, process and dispense the drug.

Last fall, two companies that scored high on the blind analysis of applications for growing cannabis were bumped from the list of licensees in order to spread the companies out geographically, spurring lawsuits. And none of the companies that won preliminary licenses are led by African-Americans, drawing concern from the Legislative Black Caucus.

Black caucus members cite a provision in the state cannabis law that racial diversity was supposed to be considered when awarding preliminary licenses.

State lawmakers considered legislation in the recently completed General Assembly session that would have required the state to issue more cannabis licenses in a process that could favor minority-owned firms. But lawmakers disagreed on the details — including whether to issue licenses to the two companies that were bumped for geographic reasons — and no bill was passed.

Lawmakers had hoped that if they passed legislation, it might lead the companies to drop their lawsuits.

Members of the black caucus this week urged legislative leaders to return to Annapolis for a special General Assembly session to resolve the issue. The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates said they were interested in a special session, but only if their differences can be worked out ahead of time. A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said "this is between the president and the speaker."

Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who leads the black caucus, threatened that her 51 members would not cooperate with Democratic leaders moving forward if the cannabis licensing issue isn't resolved.

A special session can only be called by the governor, but he would be required to do so if petitioned by a majority of members in both houses.

Jameson said the commission is moving forward with registering patients and giving final approval to companies. He cautioned, however, that it will take time for the industry to become operational. Not all cannabis companies will open at the same time, he said.

"This is a new and changing industry and it will probably take a couple years before it reaches full maturity," Jameson said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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