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Women Grow encourages inclusion, empathy, and awareness

Women Grow encourages inclusion, empathy, and awareness

Jen Brunekant is the first one with the microphone—she has an MBA, a DBA, a degree in science, and owns Herbal Alternatives in D.C. When she was in a car accident, she was wheelchair-bound for two years. CBD (cannabidiol) helped her learn to walk again, she says as her voice breaks.

Brunekant is speaking at an April meeting for Women Grow, a cannabis industry networking organization with chapters in over 40 cities. She and 60 other people, mostly women, have gathered in the back room of Union Jack's Pub in Columbia, and Brunekant shifts into a discussion on the monetary realities surrounding the legal weed business.

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"How many of you think you're going to be taking wheel barrels of cash out the door once you open your dispensary?" she asks.

Her audience howls with laughter.

That's because the licensing fees to grow ($125,000 per year) or operate a dispensary ($40,000 per year) are among the highest fees in the nation's medical weed market. Almost everybody in the room has been waiting since November (or even earlier) to hear if they've been one of the few selected to enter Maryland's budding cannabis industry. This was news they were supposed to receive in January, but then the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) announced they needed an additional six months to review applications because they got so many.

As pot prohibition ends slowly but surely, state by state, entrepreneurs are looking to the cannabis market as the next big frontier. The idea behind Women Grow is to get women in on the ground level before the market is oversaturated, and to inspire more inclusivity. Baltimore's chapter was founded last year by Carissa Cartalemi, Megan Rogers, and Elizabeth "Boo" Lunt.

Like almost everyone at the chapter's monthly networking event, Cartalemi had a thoughtful reason for wanting to break into the medical cannabis market: she worked with dying people every day. As a counselor at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital, she recalls one patient in particular, a 52-year-old father, dying of stage four cancer.

"He couldn't speak without a puke bag in front of him, and I asked, 'Is anyone gonna talk to this man about cannabis?'" she says. "And they said, 'No, we don't speak to them about cannabis. It's not legal. There's no efficacy to it.' And I knew in my heart that wasn't true."

Cartalemi soon left to start her own practice, Whole Story Wellness. Then she organized Baltimore's chapter of Women Grow and started Hallaway, Inc., a pre-licensure dispensary with Rogers.

There are three different licenses to apply for—cultivating, processing, and dispensary. A maximum of 94 dispensaries will be approved statewide, two per senatorial district. Fifteen cultivating licenses are available for the entire state, and an unlimited amount of processing licenses. Entrepreneurs submitted a total of 1,081 applications—811 for dispensaries, 146 for growing, and 124 for processing. The MMCC, a commission with 15 members, almost all volunteers, are responsible for sorting through every single application.

"We were totally unprepared," admits Commissioner Eric Sterling, co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Project, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, and appointed to the MMCC by former Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2013. "We have a quarter of a million pages of application material [to review]. It was a physical ordeal as well as a managerial problem for our staff."

The volume of applications isn't the only setback the MMCC and cannabis advocates are facing. The bigger issue, the one that seemed to be the theme of this Women Grow gathering, is the lack of education among Maryland physicians on the medicinal quality of cannabis.

"The biggest block to patients is that physicians are...not really getting the materials they need in order to feel comfortable recommending cannabis," Brunekant says.

In Colorado, where medical cannabis has been legal since 2000, a 2013 study found that 19 percent of physicians believed that they should be allowed to recommend cannabis to their patients, and that only 31 percent of respondents had ever recommended cannabis to their patients (most of them between one and five times).

Part of the reason for doctors' reluctance is the ambiguity surrounding the drug's legality—after all, it's still classified as a Schedule I drug, and there have been instances of the DEA targeting physicians who recommend medical cannabis in an attempt to force them to sever ties with dispensaries. Then there's the case of six-year-old Charlotte Figi, whose debilitating seizures led her parents to plead with hundreds of Colorado physicians for a medical cannabis recommendation—all of them turned Figi's parents down, either because of Charlotte's age, fear of violating federal law, or their opinion on the health benefits of the plant.

But Maryland physicians say they are less concerned with legal risks and more concerned about the lack of proper education on prescribing.

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"This is a science that none of your doctors learned anything about in medical school—nothing!" Sterling tells Women Grow.

Despite the increasing number of states legalizing medical use, no medical schools have taken steps to implement any kind of cannabis program. Consequently, advocates have created sources for physician and patient education—Americans For Safe Access, United Patients Group, and Patients Out Of Time—organizations that hold national conferences about cannabis therapeutics.

The plight of the physicians has the potential to upend Maryland's medical cannabis industry. Illinois' industry tanked because of low patient numbers. A dispensary needs 200 patients—at a minimum—to keep from folding. That's almost 19,000 patients needed statewide to sustain the industry, according to Brunekant. As it stands now, out of the 20,000 physicians in Maryland, only 112 of them have registered with the MMCC to become certified to recommend medical cannabis to patients. And currently, there are only two certified cannabis nurses in the state. In addition to registering, the MMCC has also decreed that the certified physician specify the strain and dosage of the cannabis they're recommending.

Some have argued this could make physicians vulnerable to the DEA, considering that it's illegal for doctors to prescribe cannabis, and identifying the strain and amount sounds an awful lot like a prescription. Others believe that requiring physicians to be experts on cannabis is a roadblock in itself given the lack of education readily available to them.

After some back-and-forth about the frustration over physicians, Sterling asks the group to raise their hand if they are sponsoring a physician to attend Baltimore's Patients Out Of Time conference later this month—just four people raise a hand.

Sterling chides the group: "You have the responsibility to make the public and the doctors understand that marijuana is an important complement to medical practice in the state of Maryland."

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