To quote the Grateful Dead, "What a long strange trip it's been." Over the decades, medical marijuana has made the journey from preposterous hippie myth to accepted medical practice in Maryland and several other states.
Now, the legalization process for dispensing cannabis to the sick faces a more prosaic hurdle — zoning law. Around the state, some legislators want that hurdle to be unnecessarily burdensome.
Medical marijuana is now an issue on the county level in Maryland. That's why county officials a few weeks ago packed an information session at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual convention seeking guidance now that entrepreneurs are scouting locations to grow and dispense medical marijuana to those with prescriptions to use it.
On hand to answer questions was Hannah Byron, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission — in effect, the state's medical pot czar. "This is medicine for sick people," she told the assemblage of 200 elected and appointed county officials.
To drive home the point, she added, "These are not going to neon lights on main street" and that dispensaries will likely resemble "a boring doctor's office."
The law, in fact, allows the state to issue up to 15 licenses to grow and process medical marijuana and to operate 94 dispensaries across Maryland. It is possible Howard County could end up with a marijuana farm and highly likely it will have at least one dispensary for those with marijuana prescriptions from their doctors. Howard County officials have yet to voice an opinion on this issue, although County Executive Allan Kittleman has in the past indicated support for marijuana decriminalization.
Local zoning restrictions will apply to these operations, but questions remain whether counties can adopt zoning measures to discourage cannabis operations. In neighboring Baltimore County, a bill has already popped up in County Council that would set high obstacles, including a requirement that dispensaries be affiliated with a health or medical center and be located at least 1,000 feet from schools, day-care centers, houses of worship, libraries and parks.
One thousand feet is more than three football fields. In what way does it threaten public order if cancer patients or glaucoma and epilepsy sufferers patronize a dispensary less than that distance from a library? Or a park? Or even a school?
Baltimore County's first-blush reaction, a pre-emptive clampdown on abuses that have yet to occur, stands as a model of what not to do in Howard.
Concern about "marijuana mills" is understandable. Byron said her commission is well aware of these worries and has tools to curb abuse. We live with the sale of alcoholic beverages in our communities under rule of law. We'll learn to do the same with the less onerous marijuana dispensaries.