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Proposed medical marijuana rules under fire

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Critics took aim Tuesday at proposed regulations to create a medical marijuana industry in Maryland as a state commission tasked with writing the rules rushed toward a deadline it might not meet.

Physicians, patients, advocates and potential growers said the commission did not collect enough public input before drafting the rules — which they said appear to forbid a medical marijuana dispensary anywhere within Baltimore city limits.

Final regulations are due in less than three weeks, but the public hearing in Annapolis Tuesday was the commission's first.

Witnesses told the panel that the proposed rules are too burdensome and too vague for the program to work, and advocates for medical marijuana said they could cause months of setbacks to a program that has already has been delayed.

Baltimore Democrat Del. Cheryl D. Glenn told members of the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission — named in honor of her late mother — that requirements and restrictions would disqualify patients a doctor would otherwise recommend for marijuana treatment.

Patients must sign complicated waivers, and the rules disqualify any patient with a history of substance abuse, even if the problem had been under control for decades. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor in the previous five years would also be disqualified, which would restrict access for medical marijuana users charged with possession of paraphernalia before the law took effect.

Harry "Buddy" Robshaw III, vice chairman of the commission, said the panel had decided to change the rules about which patients could qualify to use medical marijuana, but that he could not yet discuss the changes publicly.

That drew a reaction from Del. Dan K. Morhaim.

"I can't read your mind and know what you changed behind the scenes," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

Morhaim also criticized a proposed requirement that growers keep at least two employees on site at all hours — a rule that doesn't apply to gun stores, pharmacies or other businesses with regulated inventory that shut down overnight.

The commission has not said how much it would cost to apply to grow marijuana in the state, and has not created rules for selling edible marijuana products or oils, which irked more than a half-dozen investors and potential growers who testified before the commission.

Gene Ransom, CEO of the medical society MedChi, said the draft rules may not give doctors enough protection from federal prosecution, which he said would make it unlikely they would participate.

"If we don't get this right, it will be a major deterrent for anyone using this," he said.

And John A. Pica, a former state lawmaker who represents a group of investors interested in medical marijuana, said a provision that forbids a dispensary or growing operation within 500 feet of a school, day care center, church or playground effectively rules out any site in Baltimore.

Robshaw, who is the chief of police in Cheverly, said the commission has been meeting for eight hours every Thursday since June to hash out the regulations. It has begun revisions he said he hoped to release before the Sept. 15 deadline.

"It's not going to be a whole dress uniform," Robshaw said in an interview. "Some of the pieces will be missing."

But "the skeleton" of the program, he said, will be ready within three weeks.

"I think when the new version comes out, many people's complaints will be taken care of," he said. "We feel like we're under the gun, but that it's doable."

If the commission approved final regulations, they would go to state Health Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein. If he signed off, they would be subjected to another round of public review.

Maryland lawmakers approved a medical marijuana program in 2013 that relied on academic centers to volunteer to distribute the drug. None did, and in 2014, advocates pushed through new legislation they hoped would lead to a workable program.

The new law has no deadlines for creating access, but gave the medical marijuana commission less than three months to complete the initial round of drafting regulations.

Robshaw said the tight deadline has contributed to public frustration. He said he was unsure whether the commission's weekly sessions would allow enough time to work out all the kinks by Sept. 15.

"I'm sympathetic that we need to get marijuana out there to the patients, but not in a way that … we'll forget the safeguards that need to be built into it," Robshaw said. "One day I think we are [on track], the next Thursday I don't think we can do it."

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