The debate over medical marijuana in Maryland is over: After an initial law passed in 2013 and subsequent updates were made in both 2014 and 2015, the state legislature and both recent occupants of the Governor's Mansion have made it clear that they expect the plant — now being called medical cannabis — to be made available to qualifying patients throughout the state.
Exactly what that distribution looks like in Carroll County, however, is still somewhat undecided.
At its meeting Thursday, July 7, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners were briefed on possible changes to county zoning that would restrict where the three state-approved forms of medical cannabis business — growers, processors and dispensaries — could be located.
Growing and processing operations would be allowed only in industrial zones and as a conditional use, meaning that anyone proposing to open such a facility would have to bring their proposal before the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals in a public hearing, under the proposed changes presented by Phil Hager, county director of land use, planning and development, and Jay Voight, county zoning administrator.
Under existing county zoning, medical cannabis growing operations would be allowed as a principle use, requiring no review by the Planning and Zoning Commission, in any area zoned for agriculture, County Administrator Roberta Windham previously said to the Times, and processing facilities allowed as a principle use in industrial zones.
Dispensaries, where patients would actually receive their medical cannabis, would currently be allowed in business zoning, but the proposed changes would make them an accessory use to a growing or processing operation, according to Voight.
"You can't just put a dispensary anywhere in the county," he said. "One, you have to be in an industrial zoning district, and two, you would have to be part of a medical cannabis grower or processor."
The proposed zoning changes were developed with an eye for giving communities a say in where medical cannabis facilities open up shop, as well as minimizing any backlash against operations the state has declared to be legal but which might still make some people uncomfortable, according to Hager.
"Any time you are dealing with something that is new, you are dealing with something that is going to potentially make people uncomfortable," he said in an interview. "You want to take an approach to things that allows people to feel like they are still in control of the situation."
That's an approach that Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, fully agrees with, at least to the extent that he accepts the law forces the county to accept medical cannabis in general.
"If it was up to me, we wouldn't do it at all," he said in an interview. "Since we have to do it because of state law, I believe the current zoning proposal is the most reasonable and sensible way of doing this so that we protect our main streets from some activities that could potentially be undesirable."
Any changes to the county zoning will not affect Carroll's eight municipalities, however, as each town and city must develop its own zoning regulations when it comes to medical cannabis.
In November, Westminster adopted an overlay zone that allows medical cannabis operations under a special exemption use in certain commercial areas along Md. 140, according to Bill Mackey, city director of community planning and development.
Taneytown has heard from a group that wishes to open a growing operation in an area of the town zoned for agriculture, according to City Manager Henry Heine. That is allowed under the city's zoning ordinance, but dispensaries will be limited to the few industrial zones that also meet requirements such as being far from schools.
"Basically, there is one spot that is in the industrial portion that they can do a distribution," Heine said. "We don't want that distribution to be on main street or any of those areas that are undesirable."
It is not clear, however, if there will ever be any medical cannabis operations in Taneytown or anywhere else in the county, even with interested parties.
Since 2013, The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has worked to develop the rules and regulations necessary to make medical cannabis available to patients throughout Maryland. People or organizations seeking to grow, process or dispense medical cannabis must apply to the commission for a license specific to each type of operation, but while processing licenses are presently unlimited, dispensary and growing licenses are not: There are only two dispensaries allowed in each of Maryland's 47 senatorial districts, and only 15 grower's permits will be issued.
Because those permits will be issued on a competitive basis, it is possible that none of the medical cannabis operations hoping to operate in any of Carroll's municipalities will become permitted to do so, possibly making the county zoning proposal even more significant.
Because the proposal prevents the operation of a dispensary without the operator also running a growing operation, of which there are far fewer licenses available, the zoning proposal could be seen as an attempt to use county zoning powers to prevent any cannabis operations from opening in the county. That's a concern for Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3.
"I don't want the restrictions we are putting on it to be so complicated or so onerous that it would be impossible to do this here," he said in an interview, elaborating on concerns he raised in Thursday's meeting. "The state doesn't want it legislated out of the counties so they can never have it."
In September 2015, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe wrote in a letter to state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County that counties did not have the authority to prohibit medical cannabis operations, even through zoning powers.
"As a rule, counties have broad zoning powers," Rowe wrote. "These powers do not, however, necessarily include the authority to zone in such a way that activities that are licensed under state law are effectively barred from the county."
When the medical marijuana regulations were first promulgated, Hager said there had been some talk in other jurisdictions about creating zoning and other local regulations that would give the appearance of allowing medical cannabis operations but would be just complex and contradictory enough to make actually getting local approval impossible. But he said any inhibition caused by the proposed zoning relating to the possible imbalance between growing licenses and dispensary licenses was not intended in any way to prohibit either type of cannabis operation.
"That is definitely not the case, that is not our desire," he said. "If indeed that will occur as a result of what we have done it would certainly be an unintentional consequence, so we will look at that."
Hager, who is part of a committee hammering out the proposed zoning changes, said he will review any possible conflicts with the committee before bringing the proposal back before the Board of Commissioners on Thursday, July 14.
After reviewing the proposal at that time, he said, the commissioners could authorize the committee to send it back to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which would formulate a proposed ordinance for the commissioners to review before scheduling a public hearing — there are many steps remaining, in other words, before any zoning changes would be voted on by the board.
In the event that, for whatever reason, no medical cannabis dispensaries are opened within Carroll County, there could still be remedies for patients who need access to cannabis. Whether it's grown here or not, medical cannabis is likely coming to Carroll County, according to interim Medical Cannabis Commission spokesman Christopher Garrett.
"The current medical cannabis regulations authorize licensed dispensaries to engage the services of a secure transport vehicle to deliver medical cannabis to qualified patients located throughout the state," he said.