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A qualified, licensed medical cannabis grower could be a tremendous asset for Cumberland, says the town's economic development chief and a health system CEO.

Who should be licensed to grow medical cannabis in Maryland?

That question will soon be answered by the Natalie LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which is authorized under state law to award licenses to 15 organizations to grow medical cannabis.

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The qualifications of these organizations are important, but so is where in Maryland they intend to locate. We want to shed light on why a qualified, licensed medical cannabis grower could be a tremendous asset for a community like ours.

We live and work in Cumberland, a small Western Maryland town blessed with stunning natural surroundings, tranquillity and friendly neighbors.

Like many communities, Cumberland invests considerable resources to reach two goals: quality health care and a strong economy. We have concluded that tightly regulated access to medical cannabis can help us deliver on both goals.

First, consider the public health benefits. This past fiscal year alone, Western Maryland Health System in Cumberland diagnosed more than 2,200 patients with diseases that can be treated with medical cannabis under Maryland law. That means our hospital clinicians could potentially prescribe thousands of patients a safe and effective treatment option for pain related to cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions if they deemed it appropriate.

Medical cannabis can also be a safe alternative to prescription painkillers such as opioids, which have ravaged many communities across Maryland because of their addictiveness. Western Maryland Health System diagnosed 1,135 episodes of opioid dependence, abuse or overdose the past fiscal year. Statewide, opioid-related deaths in Maryland have increased a staggering 76 percent since 2010. Too many families experience pain and suffering at the hands of this opioid epidemic.

Patients and clinicians deserve a safer treatment option. Research shows that access to medical cannabis dispensaries is associated with a 15 to 35 percent reduction in substance abuse admissions and opiate overdose fatalities.

Second, consider the economic benefits. Cumberland is transitioning from its 20th century industrial roots to a more diverse, service-based economy. We are growing sectors that will be crucial in the 21st century, from information technology and office support to health and medical services.

Herein lies the economic potential. A medical cannabis pharmaceutical company is a perfect complement to our health and medical services economy. A licensed grower could seamlessly partner with Western Maryland Health System to serve qualified patients at a regional scale, tap into Allegany County's vast expertise in agriculture and create jobs higher up the wage scale.

For all of these reasons, the City of Cumberland this summer entered into an agreement with Peak Harvest Health, whose principals have experience growing medical cannabis in highly regulated states, to operate a growing facility within city limits.

Should Peak Harvest Health secure a state license, we expect they could add more than 100 new jobs in our community and return a vacant building to the tax rolls, adding new revenue to local coffers.

We do not arrive at our decision to support medical cannabis lightly, and we are firmly opposed to legalizing recreational use of cannabis. Extensive research and consultations have convinced us that the presence of a medical cannabis grower in Cumberland will be beneficial for our citizens and our economy.

Barry Ronan (BRonan@wmhs.com) is CEO of Western Maryland Health System in Cumberland. Shawn Hershberger (s.hershberger@choosecumberland.org) is president and executive director of the Cumberland Economic Development Corporation.

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