Maryland patients are several months away from being able to legally obtain medical cannabis to treat chronic conditions. But scammers are already trying to make a buck off patients desperate for the relief from the new drug, according to regulators and industry officials.
State officials have been told that some companies are selling "marijuana cards" or offering exams to "pre-approve" patients for medical cannabis.
Neither is a legitimate practice, officials say.
"They are telling patients that they have the ability to pre-approve them for the medical cannabis program and that is a lie," said Darrell Carrington, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association. "There is no such thing as pre-approval."
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which regulates the industry, has issued preliminary licenses for companies to grow, process and dispense cannabis in the state. But none of the businesses have received final licenses or begun operation. No doctors have the ability to issue certifications for legal medical cannabis.
Patrick Jameson, executive director of the commission, said "there are already attempts at fake patient identification cards being promulgated."
"This type of fraudulent activity preys against the most vulnerable people in society and we will do everything possible to stop this behavior," Jameson said in a statement. "Only patient identification cards issued by the Commission are legitimate. At this point no ID cards have been issued."
The state commission has received about 20 reports of questionable claims by cannabis businesses, according to Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Carrington said he's frustrated that companies are trying to dupe sick patients.
"They're taking advantage of them because people are so desperate for the medication," he said.
It's already a struggle for the emerging cannabis industry to win over skeptics, he said, and dishonest operators don't help.
"Groups that are operating nefariously and preying on people's hopes and desires do a huge disservice," he said.
Maryland's medical cannabis system won't involve written prescriptions. And while the commission will offer patient identification cards, they won't be required.
Both doctors and patients will be required to join an online registry that will be monitored by state regulators. Doctors will use the system to issue online certifications for patients to use cannabis.
Doctors can currently join the registry. The patient registry won't open until sometime in the first few months of 2017, Lyon said.
A doctor's certification for cannabis will be good for 120 days from its issuance. Patients will be able to obtain one 30-day supply at a time. Licensed dispensaries will check the state database before selling the drug.
The dispensaries will verify a patient's identity, either through government identification such as a driver's license or a patient identification card issued by the commission.
All transactions will be monitored by the state commission.
Medical cannabis will be available to Maryland patients no earlier than late next year, Lyon said.
A number of factors will influence the timing of when legal medical cannabis will be available to patients.
In response to concern about the lack of diversity among preliminary license winners, state lawmakers could decide to change the rules governing the medical cannabis program during the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 11. And there are multiple lawsuits that have been filed over the licensing process that have yet to be resolved.
"We're not there yet," Carrington said. "We're close. We'll get there soon."