County officials from across Maryland packed an information session here Thursday, seeking guidance now that entrepreneurs are scouting locations to grow and sell marijuana for medical use.
"If it's coming, I want to be as knowledgeable and prepared as I can be," said Michael Hewitt, a St. Mary's County commissioner who was among 200 people who attended the session at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention.
The General Assembly passed legislation this year and last to revise a 2013 law that had legalized the sale of medical marijuana in the state but was so restrictive that it attracted no proposals. Regulations have been drafted and, unless new snags emerge, people suffering from cancer, epilepsy and other ailments are expected to be able to purchase cannabis to relieve their symptoms by late 2016.
Unlike state lawmakers, many of the county commissioners and council members were unfamiliar with legislation that received long debate in Annapolis. Many were seeking basic reassurances at the session, a late addition to the MACO program.
"Frankly, there's a lot of concerns about the issue. Counties are looking for information on this," said Leslie Knapp Jr., MACO's legal and policy counsel.
Providing most of the answers was Hannah Byron, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission and the state official in charge of implementing the program approved by the legislators. She and commission member Deborah Miran explained the scientific arguments that have prompted nearly half the states to pass medical marijuana laws and the safeguards Maryland has adopted to prevent abuses.
"This is medicine for sick people," Byron told the group, which included elected and appointed county officials. "It will create jobs and economic development. It's one of the fastest-growing industries in the country."
The law allows the state to issue up to 15 licenses to grow and process medical cannabis and to operate 94 dispensaries across Maryland.
Facilities must comply with local zoning restrictions, Byron said. But questions remain about whether counties can attempt to discourage such operations. A spokesman for Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said the office has not been asked for an opinion on the subject.
Some counties appear receptive to the growing and processing facilities, which can be set off in industrial parks or remote areas. However, officials said the dispensaries — where people will be able to buy cannabis with a doctor's recommendation — are a more sensitive topic.
Byron sought to reassure the group that lawmakers did not envision the dispensaries as public nuisances.
"These are not going to be neon lights on Main Street," she said, adding that they are more likely to resemble "a boring doctor's office."
In Baltimore County this week, Councilwoman Vicki Almond introduced a zoning bill that would impose tight restrictions on where dispensaries can open and how they can be run. Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who supports medical cannabis, said her intent is not to block such facilities but simply to regulate where they can go.
"I think it's only appropriate — and a responsibility to our communities — to make sure they are zoned properly and in the proper places," Almond said. "I'm not trying to stop it. We're just trying to take a hard look at where these places should be."
Her bill drew a harsh reaction from a Baltimore County senator who supports medical cannabis. "It would be beyond ridiculous to do what this bill has done, which is zone it out of existence," said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Almond's bill would require that the dispensaries affiliate themselves with a health or medical center and locate at least 1,000 feet away from schools, day care centers, houses of worship, libraries and parks. They also would have to be at least 2,500 feet away from one another.
Almond's bill is co-sponsored by David Marks, a Republican from Perry Hall.
"I thought this was a useful time to begin a dialogue of where these establishments should be placed," Marks said.
According to Zirkin, the bill would thwart the legislature's intent to make medical cannabis available to suffering patients. He said Almond's proposed restrictions are so broad that there would not be anywhere in the county that a dispensary could open.
"It would make it impossible for a patient to pick up their prescription in Baltimore County," Zirkin said. He said the zoning for dispensaries should be no more restrictive than for a CVS or Walgreens, noting that pharmacies dispense prescription drugs more dangerous than cannabis.
The senator said restrictive local zoning laws could bring court challenges or General Assembly action to rein in local governments.
Almond said she is willing to make changes to her bill, either before it is voted on in September or in future legislation. She and Marks said the whole council agrees that zoning rules for medical cannabis businesses are needed.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz disagrees.
"The county executive believes there's no need for this legislation because the regulation of these facilities can be handled through existing zoning," said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Kamenetz.
Similar controversies are likely to arise in other jurisdictions after the state commission adopts final regulations in September and begins taking applications for licenses.
At Thursday's session, local officials posed questions on concerns ranging from the danger of medical practices becoming "marijuana mills" to whether the dispensary licenses would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Byron said she was confident the commission had adopted controls that would identify a physician who was abusing the system. And she said licenses for dispensaries would be awarded to the best applicants, not necessarily the first.
Hewitt came in with questions about whether the cannabis facilities would have to operate on a cash basis, since marijuana is illegal under federal law and banks might refuse to deal with them. Byron's answer — that Congress might soon lift some of those restrictions — did not erase his concerns about having such a business in St. Mary's.
"It seems like that would make it a good target for crime," said Hewitt, a Republican, like all of the commissioners in his Southern Maryland county.
Nevertheless, Hewitt found the session valuable.
"I got a lot of my questions answered today," he said. "I continue to keep an open mind."