TANEYTOWN — The trip to Oregon this spring wasn't conceived as an adventure in cannatourism by Randy and Lisa Crawford, but serendipity intervened.
"What started out as a bucket list trip also turned into an education on medical cannabis," Lisa Crawford said in an emotional interview Friday at the couple's family home in Taneytown. "There are some things that you really don't believe in until you see it with your own eyes. I can't say that he or I believed it would help, but while we were out there, we were going to look at it."
The Crawfords said they had never used drugs — in their 24 years together, Randy Crawford had never even drank alcohol or smoked tobacco — but faced with treatment-resistant cancer and legal cannabis in Oregon, they decided to give it a try. They were amazed by how effective cannabis was at mitigating Randy Crawford's pain.
On Monday, as the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission announced the 15 parties that had won first stage approval to begin growing medical cannabis under Maryland's own medical cannabis regime, including one in Carroll County, Lisa Crawford had just one question. Given that regulations for medical cannabis in Maryland were first drafted in 2014, what's taking so long?
"I'm glad it's moving forward, I'm excited, but my God, 2014?" Lisa Crawford said. "How long is it going to take to get a dispensary?"
An unexpected gift
Randy Crawford was diagnosed with multiple myeloma on Jan. 15 and was immediately pulled from work due to concerns of possible paralysis as the cancer destroyed two of his vertebrae. After a short, miserable attempt at radiation and chemotherapy that left him with painful leg neuropathy, Crawford made the decision to enter palliative care, to try to enjoy what time he had left rather than purchase more time of lesser quality with further treatment.
"It's been hard. I have extreme pain and nausea," Crawford said. He would not speak often during the interview due to his feeling ill. "Sometimes it's worse than others."
The Crawfords have three boys — Cade, 14, Connor, 13, and Cyle, 3 — and Lisa Crawford said the family had planned to take a trip to the West Coast to go hiking in the redwood forests and visit Oregon sometime in the next few years, but that was before her husband became sick. Connor never gave up on that.
"Connor mentioned to a friend that he was saving his birthday money to send his dad to see the redwoods before he died," Lisa Crawford said. "One thing led to another and friends started to offer ways to help make this happen."
Donations from friends, the offer for a time share in Portland, Oregon —suddenly, through the kindness of others, the Crawfords were able to take a last dream trip together as a family in late May. But if it were not for help of another kind, Randy Crawford said, he would not have been able to endure the trip, much less enjoy the time. After visiting a dispensary and getting an education on the different strains of cannabis available, he was able to mitigate his symptoms in ways traditional medications had not, and he was more active than he had been in months.
"The medical marijuana did completely take away the neuropathy, which is what would have kept him from walking around the falls at the Columbia River Gorge," Lisa Crawford said. "It was amazing the difference; he could walk around without wanting to cry, so that was huge for him to be able to do that and go places with his boys. It was huge. It was a gift."
Prior to, and now after, the trip to Oregon, Randy Crawford has tried every medication offered by doctors in Maryland: morphine for pain, phenobarbital for sleep, and Zofran and a constellation of other antinausea medications. None seem to really moderate the neuropathy or the nausea, not the way the cannabis could. As their return to Maryland approached, Lisa Crawford turned her attention to how she could access this new medication at home.
"As soon as we hit ground here in Maryland, that was the first thing I looked at because I knew it had been legal since 2014. I didn't realize there were no dispensaries or growers," she said. "I spent two days, and when I say two days, I mean two full days, researching how I could do this legally for my family. And it is for the family. He is so sick and they see him being tortured by this disease — my boys are affected."
Go ahead and wait
The Maryland General Assembly actually first approved medical marijuana legislation in 2013, but delays in implementation of the law by the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission led to new legislation in 2014. Regulations drafted by the commission after 2014 created a system whereby 15 licensed growers, assisted by any number of licensed processing facilities, would supply medical marijuana to qualified patients through dispensaries, of which there would be a maximum of two per state senatorial district. Further changes signed into law in 2015 shifted the official state terminology — and the name of the commission — from medical marijuana to medical cannabis to distinguish the medicine from recreational pot.
But not a single medical cannabis plant has yet to be planted in Maryland; until Monday, Aug. 15, it wasn't even known who would have the privilege of doing so. The Medical Cannabis Commission is tentatively projecting that the first cannabis will be available by the summer of 2017, but to someone in the Crawfords' shoes, that might as well be forever. Lisa Crawford contacted neighboring states with functioning medical marijuana dispensaries, such as Delaware and New Jersey, only to be told that federal marijuana prohibition makes reciprocity laws, or carrying medical marijuana across state lines, illegal.
"The two days I spent on this were so depressing. I think I cried so much," Lisa Crawford said. "You should be able to get this legally, but everybody is making it so hard."
It's not clear if and where any dispensaries will open in Carroll County, in part because the Medical Cannabis Commission has yet to announce who will get a license.
Maryland Compassionate Care and Wellness LLC, which has received provisional approval from the commission for both growing and processing operations in Carroll, has also applied to operate dispensaries in Senate Districts 5 and 9, which include Carroll. The possible locations of these operations are not known, as the commission did not require applicants to provide that information, according to Christopher Garrett of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and because Maryland Compassionate Care and Wellness CEO Steve Weisman, of Illinois, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview on the topic.
Weisman, 30, is a former Chicago attorney who is now chief executive of Windy City Cannabis Club, which has been licensed to sell medical marijuana in four Illinois towns, according to a Chicago Tribune article published last July.
"I'm a businessman," he told the Tribune. "I saw what the margins were. When the opportunity came up, we were able to make it work."
Weisman did provide a short statement to the Times on Aug. 15 explaining why his venture chose Carroll, generally, for growing medical cannabis.
"We chose Carroll County as the site of our growing operation because the county offers appropriate sites for businesses of this scale," he wrote in a text message. "Throughout this process, we have been encouraged by our interactions with residents and officials, who have been very welcoming and cooperative."
Of patient patients and public perception
Carroll County officials, however, have not been particularly excited about the prospect of medical cannabis in the community. The Carroll County Board of Commissioners has had several meetings on the topic of cannabis business zoning rules that could severely limit the locations medical cannabis operations would be able to take place on county land, and which could, it turns out, violate state law. In July, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said of the proposed zoning rules, "I want to make it as hard as possible [to sell medical cannabis] until someone gives me a directive otherwise or suggests that it shouldn't be hard."
The board plans to vote on the zoning proposals at its meeting Thursday, Aug. 25.
Lisa Crawford certainly understands the apprehension many people feel when it comes to cannabis — neither she nor her husband had ever thought they would be advocating for access to cannabis in Carroll County. But she also said she believes people need to remember that for all the talk about the business of cannabis, dispensaries are ultimately about providing safe access to medicine for people like Randy Crawford.
"It's not the drug dealer down the street that is doing a happy dance that this is coming in," she said. "A lot of people won't listen to the humanity side, unfortunately. See the big picture — that it is affecting families."
How you can help:
While Lisa and Randy Crawford have spoken out about the medical benefits of cannabis, much of their story has nothing to do with the controversial plant. Instead, it's the story of a family struggling to make ends meet while dealing with a debilitating illness, and a story in which the kindness of friends and neighbors, and even strangers has meant so much.
"When Randy was pulled out of work, we had food literally dropped off on the doorstep by neighbors and friends, and people in the community, and it is has continued to happen; they haven't forgotten about us after six months," Lisa Crawford said.
It was the kindness of others that allowed the family to take their trip to Oregon, too, but Lisa Crawford is very careful to point out that no donations have, or ever will be, used to acquire cannabis for Randy Crawford.
But the family still needs help, and at the urging of many of the same friends and neighbors who have supported them a fund has been set up with the Carroll County Community Foundation. Anyone willing to help make a tax-deductible donation to help the family with food, noncannabis medical treatment or housing costs can do so through Facebook by searching for the Crawford Family Fund — Community of Compassion.
"Our primary goal is to stay in our home, our family home, as long as possible, and to keep Randy as comfortable as possible," Lisa Crawford said. "Those are the two things that we're looking for."