Medical marijuana could be growing in 6 months in Maryland

Chris Clayton, of Taneytown, said he has tried everything to loosen the ever-present grip of pain on his body, from steroid injections to the surgical implantation of a spinal cord stimulator. Nothing has worked to reduce the pain he's experienced since a 2000 accident cracked two disks in his spine, compressed a third and led to his medical retirement from the Marine Corps.

"Over the years, I have been prescribed so many forms of pain narcotics that I refuse to subject myself to the side effects any longer," he said.


After 15 years of pain, just a few minutes of research online on the benefits of medical marijuana for people battling chronic pain convinced Clayton there was one thing left to try.

"I'm just looking for some pain relief. I am not one of those people that is making up an illness or exaggerating the level of an illness just so I can get approved for it," Clayton said. "My wife has always been against marijuana ... but after seeing me in pain every day for years, now she is to the point that she said, 'If it works for you, I support you 100 percent with it.'"

As recently as September, there was no certainty Marylanders like Clayton would have a chance to try medical marijuana. Even through the Maryland General Assembly had passed the state's first medical marijuana law in 2013 and follow up legislation in 2014, key legislators behind those laws were deeply concerned with the delays in their implementation by the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission, which was assigned to develop regulations.

The commission was named after the late mother of Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-District 45, who sponsored the medical marijuana legislation. Glenn told the Times in September she was so concerned about the problems with the commission that she worried whether medical marijuana would ever be made available. Since then, she said, things have evolved swiftly and for the better.

"We are very pleased with the progress we have been able to make," Glenn said. "I was almost embarrassed before, but now I am very, very proud and I know my mother is smiling down from heaven."

Glenn said changes made to the regulations by the Medical Marijuana Commission since January, and further changes included in new legislation, House Bill 490, that is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan, could lead to medical marijuana production beginning inside six months, with the first product becoming available to patients perhaps within 12 months.

"We fully expect the commission to be able to expedite the [requests for proposals], so to speak, for growers and dispensaries and we expect that to happen in really the next six months so that we can get this going," Glenn said. "A lot of people have already organized themselves in hopes that we would be able to get legislation passed to remove the barriers."

Glenn credits the new executive director of the commission, Hanna Byron, with moving the program forward after months of stagnation. Byron, who started in January, said there had been a change in philosophy on the commission, from one that held everything had to be perfect before the medical marijuana program got off the ground to one that aimed for good regulations now that could be perfected over time.

Even as regulations and laws have been changing and refined over the past three months, Byron said the commission has been working to build the databases and other infrastructure needed to allow the program to launch quickly when ready. She said 12 months until patients can get marijuana is very optimistic, but not unreasonable.

"It is an aggressive timeline, but we want to work very diligently to move this program forward so we can get medicine to patients," Byron said. "This is a whole new industry; it's agriculture, it's manufacturing, it's retail and it's medicine."

There will be 15 licensed growers allowed in Maryland through 2018, according to Byron, who each will pay a $6,000 application fee and $125,000 annual licensing fee for that privilege, according to the current draft regulations available on the Medical Marijuana Commission website. There will also be two dispensaries allowed in each senatorial district, with a $5,000 application fee for those hopeful managers and an annual $40,000 licensing fee.

The Times was not able to reach anyone in Carroll County who expressed a serious interest in applying to grow marijuana, but according Byron, there has been a great deal interest in growing medicinal marijuana from the state agricultural community at large. Although current regulations require a great deal of security around the crop, she said the law does allow for outdoor cultivation as well as indoor hydroponic, or green house-based, operations.

If HB 490 becomes law — and supporters are optimistic Hogan will sign the bill — further changes to the medical marijuana program will have to be integrated into the regulations, starting with a change in nomenclature.

"It's called medical cannabis now," said Del. Dan Morhaim, D-District 11, a sponsor of HB 490, a physician and long time supporter of medical marijuana. The name change is meant to differentiate between cannabis as medicine and marijuana as an illegal, recreational drug, and the commission itself will also be renamed the Medical Cannabis Commission.


Morhaim takes the view that medical cannabis is, as the name indicates, medical, and should be treated as much as possible like other medicines. One of the major changes that will come with HB 490 is the elimination of special education and registration requirements for physicians that might wish to recommend a patient use medical cannabis — a change Morhaim said will make it easier for patients to get the medicine they need and bring medical cannabis more in line with other therapies in the physician's tool kit.

"If you are a licensed physician in good standing, you can recommend medical cannabis just as if you can anything else," he said. "I learn about new medications all the time; it's part of my job."

Morhaim would like to remove the wedge between cannabis and medicine. So long as it will be available as medicine, he said, it should be treated as such, and kept separate from the issue of recreational marijuana, however those laws might change.

"This is medicine," he said. "In the war on drugs, let's keep the sick and dying off the battlefield."

Even recognizing the ongoing national discussion on the full legalization of recreational marijuana, and even the full legalization of marijuana in D.C., Glenn said that there would be value in having a functionally separate system of medical cannabis patients. It will also help provide the data needed to inform the larger debate on legalization.

"I don't think we are at the point in the state where we are looking at full legalization, I think that is maybe five years down the road," she said. "A lot of people want to see how the medical marijuana program works first."

And medical cannabis is not here yet, Morhaim said. He too, is optimistic, but added that until the first patient receives the first dose of medical cannabis in Maryland, it's still just conversation and mounds of paperwork.


"The problem of course is that in that interim people have been suffering needlessly," he said. "Every day that goes by there is someone that is unable to get relief. They are not a criminal or a pothead, they are friends or family members of you or I ... More people could be helped, from children with seizures to children with cancers."

One of those children is Chloe Isaac, a 2-year-old girl in Westminster with a severe seizure disorder whose body is wracked by up to 200 such seizures each day. Chloe's mother and father, Courtney Moser and Kevin Isaac, had been considering moving to Colorado where they could access specialized strains of cannabis, but Moser said they are now optimistic that Chloe will have an opportunity to try medical marijuana without leaving her extended family members behind.

"It's a huge weight off my shoulders," Moser said. "I just feel like this is going to be the change that she needs to finally have some normalcy in her childhood."

Moser said she knows medical cannabis may not stop all of Chloe's seizures, or allow her to stop taking all of her other potent and potentially dangerous medications, but as Chloe's mother, she says, it is important that she try everything she can to improve her daughter's quality of life.

Clayton also knows there's no guarantee medical cannabis is a magic bullet that will eliminate his pain or allow him to remove the battery packs and wires that make up the spinal cord stimulator that suppress the pain in his legs. He just wants the chance to try it and see.

"If it takes me from an 8 or 9 on the pain scale to, what I would hope for, a 4 or 5, that would be such a difference," he said. "I'm realistic, I know I won't have full pain relief, but if I can have enough to where I can get out of the house and do something, just shopping with my wife ... If I could just have that part of my life again, that would be great. Worlds above where I am now."