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Rural Maryland sees jobs in medical marijuana

Rural Maryland sees jobs in medical marijuana
Interviewed about the possibility of a medical cannabis facility constructed in rural Maryland, Danielle Grove of Clear Spring, Leo Myers of Hagerstown, and Josh Russel of Hagerstown, are all in favor.

Washington County is a proudly conservative place. Voters haven't backed a Democrat for president since 1964, and same-sex marriage lost by a landslide in a referendum three years ago.

But when Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries pitched a proposal to put a medical marijuana production plant here, the county's five county commissioners — Republicans all — passed a resolution unanimously supporting the plan.

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Residents in Hagerstown, the county seat, seem to be taking the news in stride. The consensus: yes to marijuana for relieving pain, no to recreational use.

"I think it's all right as long as it's only for medical. I don't want a lot of potheads," said Leo Myers, 61, a security worker at the Mack Truck plant.

It isn't just compassion for suffering patients that is driving the acceptance of medical marijuana in Washington County, though that is one factor. Here and in other rural counties from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, officials are looking at cannabis grower-processors as sources of jobs rather than purveyors of vice.

Unemployment in this county has eased since it soared into double digits during the recession. But at 6.1 percent, the rate is still higher than the statewide average of 5.6 percent. And many residents have to commute 90 minutes or more to jobs in or near Washington. Decent-paying jobs closer to home are much in demand.

"Out in Western Maryland, we've been deprived and depressed a lot," said Commissioner John Barr. That history has helped shape reaction to the possibilities created by Maryland's legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

"We view it as an economic development opportunity," Barr said.

Green Thumb representatives who briefed the commissioners before last month's vote said the facility would employ 30 to 50 employees in its first year, and predicted it would expand to 200 workers in a new 175,000-square-foot plant in two to four years. They predicted it would bring a $4 million to $7 million boost to the local economy.

That is hardly an economic panacea, but it represents a significant lift for a county still reeling from 650 layoffs at a Citigroup mortgage servicing center and the closing of Unilever's Good Humor ice cream plant, with its 450 jobs, in recent years.

The board's action illustrates how quickly attitudes are changing across Maryland about the medicinal use of cannabis — the industry's preferred term and one that was written into state law this year.

"There's a lot of interest all over the state," said Hannah Byron, executive director of Maryland's Medical Cannabis Commission.

The General Assembly voted to allow medical marijuana in 2013, but under terms so restrictive that there were no takers. Lawmakers overhauled that bill in 2014 and again this year, setting up a regulatory system that has attracted the interest of investors.

The change came after lawmakers in Annapolis heard testimony from medical experts, cancer patients, parents of children with seizure disorders and others who believe that cannabis products could relieve suffering for many patients.

The revised law establishes two tiers of tightly regulated businesses to provide cannabis to patients recommended by a physician. Up to 15 companies will be licensed to grow the plants and use them to make pharmaceutical products. The law also allows 94 dispensaries — two for each state Senate district — for retail sales.

The commission that lawmakers set up to run the program has drafted regulations that are expected to become final next month. Soon after, the panel will begin taking applications for grower-processor licenses. The commission is expected to award those licenses in December.

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Byron said that besides urban areas and Washington County, the commission has fielded inquiries from potential grower-processors in Harford, Frederick, Allegany and Garrett counties as well as several locations on the Eastern Shore.

The interest in locating such facilities in rural areas has been seen in other states that have legalized medical cannabis with licensed producers, said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington.

"From a business standpoint and a regulatory standpoint, it makes sense to go to places that have lower population densities and affordable property and fewer zoning restrictions," he said.

The vote in Washington County came after company officials outlined their business plan for commissioners and explained the tight security measures they intend to put in place.

Green Thumb officials said the company won licenses for three cannabis facilities in Illinois but decided to open only two. The company hired Terry Gainer, a former sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. Senate and Illinois State Police director, as its security consultant.

Gainer told the commissioners the proposed facility outside Hagerstown would have around-the-clock guard service, electronic surveillance and extensive background checks of all employees. He said employees would be restricted to their own work areas and would not be permitted to move through the plant.

"The likelihood of diversion of product is slim or none," he said.

Commissioner LeRoy E. Myers Jr. praised Green Thumb's presentation, noting that the company did not have to seek the board's endorsement.

"They're here because they know it's a tender subject — at least for rural Maryland," Myers said.

Byron said the Washington County commissioners' support will carry some weight in the state licensing competition.

"It's not required, but I think the support from the local county officials is very important," she said.

Sterling Crockett, a partner in Green Thumb's GTI Maryland subsidiary, said he did not think the process could have gone any better.

"We don't really see it as a liberal-conservative issue. We look at it as more of a health-related issue," he said.

That is how many in Hagerstown see it.

Nicole Draheim, 45, said she has a brother-in-law who has brain cancer. "If something were to help him, I don't think I could be against it," she said.

Draheim added that she wants to see medical use tightly regulated and opposes moves to permit recreational use.

"As the mother of a teenager, that scares me," she said.

Danielle Grove, 31, of Clear Spring has a friend whose child has a seizure disorder, a condition that proponents believe medical cannabis can help.

"Medically, I feel in controlled circumstances it's been fine," she said.

State Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Washington County Republican, is one of the few local elected officials who oppose the facility. He said that if he had been a commissioner, he would have voted no — in spite of the company's promises of jobs and tight security.

Parrott expressed concern that medical cannabis has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and remains illegal under federal law — though the Obama administration has taken a tolerant view of state efforts to allow it. Parrott is also skeptical of the claims made by proponents of the drug's benefits.

"It's not based on science — certainly not enough science that the FDA has approved any part of the marijuana plant," he said.

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Commissioner Barr said he received some complaints about the county action, but not as many as he expected. He noted that the proposed facility would be in an industrial park off Interstate 81, with no homes or churches nearby.

"As long as it's not in their backyard, people don't care anymore," Barr said.

Other rural Maryland counties, where land is less expensive than in metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, also are seeing interest.

In Allegany County, an aspiring entrepreneur said he has been meeting with elected officials about a plan to grow organic cannabis and turn it into medical products in an indoor-outdoor operation in a remote area east of Cumberland.

"Overall, folks have been very positive," said Casey Callister, chief executive of Vast Organic Farms.

Bill Valentine, president of the Allegany County commissioners and a supporter of medical marijuana, said Vast Organic and one other company, which he declined to name, have approached the county and outlined proposals for cannabis operations. He's heard that others have been looking at potential sites but said the county has no intention of "picking winners and losers."

"Right now, we're going to treat it as any other business that's interested in coming to the county," he said. "We don't plan on putting up any roadblocks to any of the applicants."

In Easton, the Town Council signed off in June on a plan by Colorado-based CBD Wellness Group to locate a cannabis growing and processing facility in a former Black & Decker plant in the Talbot County seat.

"It fills up a 240,000-square-foot building that's been empty ever since Black & Decker left 24 years ago," said Easton Mayor Bob Willey. "It also provides about 80 jobs for the local economy."

Barr said he has a hard time believing how quickly attitudes have changed toward medical marijuana.

"If you'd have asked me five years ago about this, I would have said you're out of your mind," he said. "Probably three years ago."

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