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Medical cannabis patients, dispensers, get educated at community forum in Harford

Contact Reporterdaanderson@baltsun.com

Connor Sheffield has, in the several months since he began using cannabis oil to treat his gastrointestinal dysmotility disorder, stopped having to use his feeding tube, gained 10 to 20 pounds and been able to go to school on a regular basis.

“I’m just way stronger than I used to be,” the 14-year-old Havre de Grace High School freshman said.

The challenge Connor faces now is being able to take his medication while at school, according to his mother, Tricia Sheffield. He currently has to be signed out and leave campus to take his dosage — he needs to take the cannabis oil every three to four hours, according to a pamphlet provided by his mother.

“It’s a miracle drug, definitely,” Sheffield said of medical cannabis, which has been legal in Maryland since 2013.

Dispensaries where patients could purchase medical cannabis products — with approvals from their health care providers and a state-issued card — began opening in Cecil and Harford counties in early 2018, following lengthy approvals processes by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

Harford County patients currently have five dispensaries they can patronize, including Nature’s Care & Wellness just across the Susquehanna River in Perryville, two RISE Dispensaries in Abingdon and Joppa, True Wellness in Aberdeen, and Four Green Fields in Street.

Four Green Fields, which is in a building off of Route 1, hosted a community forum, State of Medical Cannabis Address, May 3 at Harford Community College. Sheffield and her son were among the roughly 70 people who attended the free event, designed to give patients and dispensary operators an opportunity to connect with experts in the medical cannabis field as well as state regulators.

Dave Pierson, general manager for Four Green Fields, said patients’ desire for more information about medical cannabis is “an issue that we see at the dispensary, where people are coming in wanting to know more about this, wanting their doctors to talk to them about it, but reaching a wall there.”

“We’re very much an advocate for you, [in the public] taking this information into your own hands and learning as much as you can about it on your own and encouraging your doctor to do the same,” Pierson added.

Dr. Dustin Sulak, a Maine-based physician and founder and medical director for Healer.com, was the keynote speaker. He appeared along with Dr. Debra Kimless, medical director for Maryland medical cannabis grower ForwardGro, and Joy Strand, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

The MMCC issues licenses for dispensaries, growers and processors, plus it oversees registrations, product testing and facility inspections, and it is an information source and registration portal for patients, medical providers and caregivers, according to the agency website.

Strand said she thinks the MMCC’s “number-one function and responsibility” is to ensure “the patient receives safe and high-quality products, so we’re very focused on our safety and quality.”

She said 76 dispensaries are operating statewide, and there are more than 92,700 patients registered to receive medical cannabis as of late April. More than 1,300 medical providers have been certified, such as physicians, dentists and podiatrists. Providers must have a “bonafide” relationship with their patients, Strand said.

There are 158 minors registered as patients, as well as 226 hospice residents. Strand noted anyone seeking to register a minor or hospice patient should indicate their status on the application, which will ensure they will not have to wait in a queue to get registered.

Kimless, in her talk, discussed her initiative for patients to “take back the conversation” and be able to talk openly with their doctors about medical cannabis.

“We have the power to de-stigmatize this medicine,” she said.

Sulak talked in detail about the multiple studies that have shown how medical cannabis can help reduce opioid dependency, improve the quality of life for people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, prevent some damage related to a heart attack, even enhance the benefits of conventional treatments for cancer.

The drug, “when used properly,” can help with side effects from cancer treatment such as nausea, vomiting, chronic pain, insomnia and neuropathic pain, plus it has been shown to fight cancer itself, by reducing the size of or stopping the growth of tumors, or even providing “full remission” in animal studies and anecdotal reports from human patients, according to Healer.com.

Sulak said people who use medical cannabis can develop “neuro-protectants” that lessen the effects of traumatic brain injury and stroke, as well as degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, and they are much less likely to experience obesity or diabetes.

“Even though [patients] may consume more calories, they have a lower body mass index because cannabis alters our metabolism,” Sulak said.

Strand noted, in response to Tricia Sheffield’s concern about her son having to leave school grounds to take his cannabis medication, that her agency has “absolutely no authority” regarding that policy. She said that must be addressed either by the Maryland State Department of Education or a change in state statutes.

“Unless there is emergency legislation that is introduced outside of [the Maryland General Assembly] session, I don’t think we’ll be able to even address that until next session, so I know you continue that fight,” she told Sheffield.

Sheffield said later that the forum had been a valuable experience.

“It was really good,” she said. “I’m trying to educate myself as much as possible on the entire [cannabis] plant and the benefits.”

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