Medical cannabis delays hurt patients

Op-ed: Stop holding up Maryland medical cannabis program, already the slowest rollout in the nation.

It has now been four years since Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation to establish the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission in Maryland. It has been, without question, the slowest rollout of a medical cannabis program by any of the 26 states that have legalized medical cannabis.

Since it was established and voted on by the General Assembly, the commission has overseen a lengthy, independent process to award pre-approval to pursue licenses to growers, processors and dispensaries. During this time, numerous public meetings were held, input was provided by legislators and the attorney general's office, and Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute was enlisted to evaluate applicants through a double-blind process.

The process was deliberate, clear and well known by the General Assembly at every stage. Finally, in 2016, the commission awarded 15 pre-approvals to pursue licenses to grow medical cannabis and 15 to process it. Combined, the commission received over 270 applications for the two license classes.

Today, however, Maryland patients are still waiting for these important medicines, and the General Assembly is considering new legislation that promises additional delay — something that Maryland patients can no longer afford and that can be avoided.

The growers and processors awarded pre-approval to pursue licenses have been working diligently to meet the state's licensing obligations. We have relied on assurances provided by the state to develop business plans and make significant investment decisions in order to operate our businesses and deliver medicine to patients later this year when final licenses are approved.

The impetus behind legislation to change Maryland's medical cannabis laws comes primarily from those who believe that the process was not conducted fairly; not surprisingly, the majority of those seeking change are unsuccessful applicants. There have been lawsuits filed by some unsuccessful groups, in addition to legislative efforts to add more licenses using minority equity ownership as a prerequisite.

We fully support minority inclusion and would point to our colleagues who are minority owners as proof that there is indeed diversity. Statistics released by the commission show that there is 35 percent racial and ethnic diversity in ownership among growers, processors and dispensers and 57 percent minority participation including women. Among industry employees in Maryland, there is 58 percent racial and ethnic diversity participation and 75 percent minority participation including women. Though these numbers are fluid and will likely change as all companies complete the licensing process and continue to hire, they clearly show racial, ethnic and gender diversity in the state's medical cannabis program.

Adding more licenses now would cause further delay for patients and undercut the significant investments made by the 15 growers and 15 processors to get Maryland's program up and running for patients.

As it currently stands, the law requires that regular evaluation of the market be made to determine if additional licenses are warranted. Our businesses should be allowed to open and operate under the conditions we were promised, before any significant changes are made.

While the debate continues in Annapolis, it is important to remember that patients continue to wait. We know that medical cannabis can provide immense relief to patients, including children, with a variety of medical conditions such as seizures, PTSD, glaucoma, severe nausea and severe or chronic pain. We also know that medical cannabis is a safe and natural alternative to treat opioid addiction.

It is time to put patients first in Annapolis and move forward with Maryland's medical cannabis program. No more delays.

Suzanne Quintero is president of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association; her email is sue.quintero1@gmail.com.

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