The long-awaited rules governing the sale of medical marijuana in Maryland have entered the home stretch with their official printing Friday in the Maryland Register, a move that could make the drug available to patients sometime next year.
Supporters of marijuana as a palliative medication have fought for years for legalization, and fixes to a state law initially passed in 2013 approved overwhelmingly earlier this year in the General Assembly. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, signed that legislation in May.
The new measure struck a provision limiting the program to academic medical centers, which declined to participate. It also now refers to the drug by its official name, medical cannabis, and refines provisions for testing products.
"This is a big step in the right direction," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill's sponsor. "This should make program operational, though there should be adjustments every year or so for the next few years as we learn from our experience."
But the point, Morhaim, a doctor, said, "This is about patient care. Thousands of Marylanders are suffering needlessly. These are our friends, family and neighbors. This is about getting relief for them."
The regulations had been delayed by months as details were worked out. There were also logistics to deal with, such as the IT infrastructure that would track doctors, patients, caregivers and distributors. Officials now plan to build on software and hardware used at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The regulations now reflect looser limitations on the location of distribution facilities and don't require doctors to get formal training. They govern smokable and liquid forms, but not edible forms, which won't be allowed in Maryland.
The proposed two-year license fees were set at $125,000 for growers and $40,000 for dispensaries, higher than any other state's except Illinois, in an effort to make the program self-sufficient as required by law.
Hannah Byron, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which is shepherding the regulations and will oversee the new industry, said she doesn't expect much to change during the 30-day comment period. That means the rules could be formally adopted by September and the commission could begin accepting applications in October for the 15 licenses to grow marijuana, an unlimited number of processor licenses and two dispensary licenses per senatorial district.
Licensees could be given preliminary approval as early as December and would have a year to develop an approved operation, though some companies may move faster. They would need to acquire real estate, gain local zoning approvals, build a facility, install equipment and hire and train staff. Some operations may combine growing, processing and distributing.
Any doctor in good standing would be able to register, but the bulk are expected to be those who treat pain, cancer and other debilitating disease. The doctors would be able to certify patients who could benefit.
Byron said there is interest from companies, as well as doctors and patients from all over the state. She said medical cannabis could be available to patients in the second half of 2016.
"It's all variable, however," she said. "We are standing up an entire industry. It's agriculture, manufacturing, retail and medicine, and it's all highly regulated in order to get high-quality medicine safely to patients."