Medical marijuana advocates met in Catonsville for the first statewide conference of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association. (Michael Dresser/Batimore Sun video)
A leading architect of the state's medical marijuana program urged representatives of the fledgling industry Wednesday to pressure health care providers and hospital administrators to remove obstacles to making the drug available to patients.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim, the longest-serving physician in the General Assembly, told about 200 people at the first statewide conference of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association that they need to be aggressive advocates as their business approaches its first legal sales — probably next year.
"You've got to step up with the political process," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Speaking at the conference at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in Catonsville, Morhaim said it's also important for patients to push providers to be willing to recommend cannabis when it's medically appropriate.
Physicians and certain other medical professionals are authorized to recommend cannabis to treat certain conditions, such as seizure disorders or the side-effects of cancer chemotherapy. The product would be grown and processed under state licenses, and would be sold by licensed dispensers.
Morhaim said only 140 to 150 Maryland physicians have signed up for the program, but more are expected to join in next year.
He said some specialists, such as oncologists and neurologists, have been more receptive to the use of medical cannabis than others. He said psychiatrists in particular have been reluctant.
Morhaim said some hospitals have sent signals that physicians who sign up for the program risk losing admitting privileges.
"When doctors get that message, subtly or overtly, that's a problem," he said.
Morhaim urged members of the association to contact hospital administrators and board members to protest any policies that discourage doctors. He predicted hospitals would eventually come under competitive pressure from patients to set up their own cannabis programs.
Carmela Coyle, president of the Maryland Hospital Association, said she has discussed the matter with Morhaim but knows of no instance in which a physician's privileges have been questioned by a hospital.
"The decision to recommend medical cannabis belongs solely to the physician," she said.
The association conference was tangible evidence of the growing normalization of cannabis in Maryland. It brought together prospective growers, processors and retailers, as well as those interested in providing support services such as security, lobbying and legal counsel.
Darrell Carrington, executive director of the state cannabis association, said the industry has been encouraged by news this week that the commission regulating medical cannabis hopes to start issuing first-stage licenses to prospective growers and processors by Aug. 15.
Carrington said he's not confident the commission will meet that timetable but is hopeful that licensees can be selected by Labor Day and the first patients could begin receiving medical cannabis next spring and summer.
While the association is now focused on medical cannabis, he said, some members are also interested in "adult use" of marijuana — what he called "a nice way of saying" recreational use, similar to provisions in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
State Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, promised his panel would explore the pros and cons of legalization and regulation of marijuana for recreational use, but added, "I don't see it as imminent."
Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored successful medical cannabis legislation, urged a pause in the program to make sure rules by which licensees are chosen ensure minorities, women, veterans and in-state businesses receive extra credit toward earning a license.
Glenn, the new chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said she met with staff for Gov. Larry Hogan asking that he make sure new selection rules are adopted.
The medical marijuana commission hasn't adopted such rules because the state attorney general's office has questioned wether such preferences would hold up under court challenge.