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Harford's first medical marijuana dispensary opening in Joppa today

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A company that has received pre-approval for a medical marijuana dispensary in Maryland is planning to open one in Aberdeen in June, according to its owner. Meanwhile, the first dispensary in Harford County is due to open Friday.

Kal Shah, who lives in Ellicottt City, said his company, Blue Mountain Care, purchased the former Saxon’s building in the 200 block of South Philadelphia Boulevard and will be opening a medical cannabis dispensary called True Wellness the first week of June.

Harford County’s first dispensary RISE Joppa, scheduled to open Friday and operated by Green Thumb Industries, is a “national cannabis cultivator and dispensary operator dedicated to providing dignified access to safe and effective cannabis,” according to a news release from GTI.

Officials at Green Thumb operator of the Joppa dispensary opening today, said research shows that when marijuana is available legally, the rate of prescriptions for opioids decreases, and that overdose fatalities decrease in regions where marijuana is legal.

“Last year there were 45,000 deaths from opioid overdoses, that’s 123 a day across the country. This crisis has no boundaries. Every neighborhood throughout the country is negatively affected by the opioid epidemic,” GTI Maryland Market President Andy Grossman said.

In states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, Grossman said, opioid overdoses are down by 25 percent.

“Every day in our stores people are so thrilled to be able to get access to quality medicine,” he said.

Blue Mountain Care’s Shah said he believes in the medical aspect of marijuana, which he referred to as cannabis.

“After seeing personal family members suffer different ailments, and hearing about many people in the state, the country, going through situations where they were seeking alternative medicine, many of them used medical cannabis to relieve them of their symptoms or sometimes their ailments,” Shah said.

The dispensary, he said, will be like a pharmacy for medical cannabis.

“It’s not a pot shop. If that’s people’s opinion, their opinion has to change,” Shah said. “This is a dispensary strictly for medical cannabis.”

While Harford County, like the rest of the country, is suffering from an epidemic of opioid overdoses at staggering numbers, Shah said medical cannabis could help alleviate the problem.

“This will actually solve the problem not create problems,” Shah said.

Every county in the state — the affluent and non-affluent — has a dispensary, Shah said.

“They’re all over the state. The image needs to change and people need to understand this is not a negative thing,” Shah said. “This is a positive thing. The plant and its properties can actually cure people and take you away from opioids and other cocktails of drugs people are taking.”

Applicants undergo background checks

Blue Mountain Care, which is applying for a dispensary license, was one of the 102 companies that received pre-approval from the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, commission representatives said earlier this year.

Blue Mountain’s application was received in November 2015, according to Jennifer White, director of communications for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

White said submitting the application is the first step in obtaining a license, and applicants must undergo background checks to be pre-approved and cleared to continue with the process. Then, the applicants must find a location for their facility and obtain local zoning approvals. They have to pass state inspections of their facilities and security systems and other aspects of their building, according to White.

Under state law, two dispensaries can be located within each of the 47 state senatorial districts. Parts of Harford County are in Districts 7, 34 and 35.

The state also reviews the backgrounds of the applicants and their business associates, their finances and business plans, according to the commission.

Shah, who grew up in Baltimore County and attended UMBC, said he chose to open a dispensary in District 34 because it covers a lot of areas.

“We liked District 34 just because it was geographically located. It covers the whole [Interstate] 95 corridor, Bel Air to Havre de Grace,” Shah said. “We felt like it was the most populous part of the county, that’s what attracted us to the district.”

Shah also said he didn’t want to be too close to other dispensaries in the area.

“We all have our territories and we’re not stepping on anybody’s toes. We can all get along and work together as we become part of the same industry,” he said. “I don’t view them as competition, I view them as partners, because there’s only a limited number of licenses in the state. We’re all in the same boat, all trying to fight for the same causes.”

Nature’s Care & Wellness in Perryville, part of the northern Cecil County section of District 35, opened in January.

Four Green Fields LLC, based in Chestertown, has applied to the county to open its dispensary business in a former auto parts store at 3518 Conowingo Road in Street, also in District 35, according to a county government spokesperson.

RISE Dispensaries is in a former liquor store at 702 Pulaski Highway in Joppa, in District 7. Hours will be 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

RISE, “because we want people to rise up and embrace the movement happening around the country,” said Grossman, who also has dispensaries in Silver Spring and Bethesda, according to a news release from the company.

He said he has met with local police “because this is new to them, too.”

“Harford County has never seen this before. We want a two-way partnership so we’re working together and working within the regulations of the state,” Grossman said.

‘New dawn’

Shah, who said he was a geek and a nerd when he was younger, was fascinated with science and wanted to be a doctor before switching his degree to computer science.

He has read many case studies about medical marijuana.

“They attracted me more to this plant and its benefits and the medical properties of this plant,” Shah said. “It’s had a crazy history, but I think we are now in a new dawn of history for this plant.”

He points to its medical form being legal in nearly 30 states and recreational form legal in seven states and Washington, D.C.

Shah admitted there are a lot of unknowns about medical marijuana, but it’s been around for thousands of years.

“Now, with genetics and genetic engines and cross breeding, you can take different strains and get hybrids. Every plant is different, every strain is different and the benefit from person to person is different,” he said. “I’m excited to do this new venture.”

Shah and his company have been turning the former jewelry store into a dispensary.

He has gotten the necessary permits from the City of Aberdeen for the work being done, Aberdeen City Manager Randy Robertson said.

Neither he nor Director of Planning and Economic Development Phyllis Brock could provide any details about the project.

According to state tax records, Blue Mountain LLC paid $539,000 for the property last November.

All the windows of the building have been filled in with concrete, which Shah said is mainly for security reasons.

“We have strict security guidelines to follow from Maryland,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to do that.”

Customers entering the Aberdeen dispensary will feel like they’re walking into Nordstrom, the high-end department store, Shah said.

“You’ll be amazed at the way the service and the store looks,” he said.

Customers seeking medical cannabis must have a recommendation, similar to a prescription, from their doctor, Shah said. They must also register through the state, which will be verified by Blue Mountain.

Once customers have checked in with the reception area, a patient service provider will show them the products available.

“You don’t have to just smoke it,” Shah said. “There are many forms of how you can get products.”

Products include drops on the tongue, oils, liquids, topical lotions, pills and patches, he said.

Grossman said patients don’t have to get high using the medical marijuana, which has two components — cannabinoids (CBD) and THC. The THC is what gets people high, he said, and it can be stripped out so patients only use the CBD component, which have “massive, massive benefits for medicinal purposes.”

While marijuana has often been called a gateway drug that leads to more harmful drugs, Grossman argued that it depends on a person’s personality.

“Cannabis is less addictive than other drugs that are out there,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re seeing [the] benefits people are getting, and the increase in their quality of life is just tremendous.”

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