Maryland's medical marijuana program, finally about to launch, could remain grounded if Congress fails to extend limits on federal prosecutions for using and selling the drug.
Under pressure from the anti-cannabis Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the House of Representatives is balking at preserving an Obama-era provision that gives the states space to decide their own approaches to regulating the drug.
Maryland, joining almost 30 other states, is preparing to legalize marijuana for the purpose of treating medical conditions. After years of delays, its first licensed grower is weeks away from offering an approved product to sell to patients on the recommendation of a medical practitioner.
But Congress could soon pull the rug out from under Maryland and the other states that have legalized medical marijuana.
Leah Heise, a dispensary license holder who plans to open her doors in Hampden by January, said the entire industry is watching Congress with concern.
The controversy boils down to 85 words Congress included in a massive budget bill late in the Obama administration, as if lawmakers wanted to acknowledge America's outlook on marijuana had changed, but not make a big deal of it.
Almost three years later, a multibillion-dollar industry and the freedom of millions to openly partake in its products without fear of federal prosecution hinge on that obscure clause.
But now Congress may throw it overboard amid pressure from an attorney general who views marijuana as a dangerous menace.
The provision, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, constitutes a single paragraph of federal law. It prohibits the Justice Department from spending any money to prosecute medical marijuana users and sellers operating legally under state laws.
It has largely shut down efforts by federal prosecutors or drug enforcement officials to interfere with otherwise legal sales of marijuana in 29 states and the District of Columbia that have passed legalization measures.
Maryland passed its medical marijuana bill in 2013, but it has taken the state more than four years to get the industry close to being up and running.
After years of legislative revisions, court challenges and a ponderous regulatory process, the state is now on the brink of making cannabis available to patients suffering from a wide range of ailments, from epilepsy to the effects of chemotherapy.
Last month ForwardGro, the Anne Arundel County company that was the first in the state to get a growing license, sent a sample from its initial crop to a lab for testing in preparation for beginning sales. At least one dispensary owner hopes to have a product to sell in a matter of weeks.
But the prospect of the prosecution ban expiring has spread anxiety across the national marijuana industry. Pot sellers and patients wonder if federal raids are next.
"This would give the attorney general a blank check to go after medical marijuana," said Sarah Trumble, deputy director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a think tank that advocates easing federal restrictions on cannabis. "Without it, he might try, but it would be really hard for him."
The first big sign of trouble for marijuana advocates came in September, when the House balked at preserving the amendment. GOP leaders refused to allow a vote in committee.
The Senate has reaffirmed its support for the provision in an affront to its former colleague, Sessions. But both houses must agree for the measure to remain in effect.
The hedging in the House followed an aggressive lobbying campaign by the attorney general, who complained in writing to lawmakers that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment was hampering law enforcement and endangering the public.
"The Department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives," Sessions wrote.
The uncertain fate of the pot provision has created tension among Republicans, dozens of whom have cast votes to prevent the federal government from a crackdown on medical marijuana. Many would like to do so again.
The most vocal is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Repubilcan, who along with former Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat, got the ban into federal statute in 2014 after a decade of trying.
Rohrabacher insists Sessions is out of step with President Donald Trump, who has expressed support for medical marijuana. Rohrabacher says Trump would step in to protect medical pot if someone could get him to focus on it.
The congressman, who is a strong Trump supporter, is potentially a good candidate to do that. But the congressman said he doesn't want to "mess up … something really important to the president" that he's working on by throwing marijuana into the mix.
Rohrabacher wants to broker a deal between the Trump administration and Julian Assange, the fugitive founder of Wikileaks. According to Rohrabacher, Assange told him he has "absolute proof" that emails stolen from Democratic operatives during last year's campaign did not come from the Russians.
Without the amendment, marijuana advocate Kate Bell said, growers on the scale of the 15 licensed in Maryland could be prosecuted under federal law as drug kingpins.
Bell is legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. The group supports renewal of the amendment, but if it were allowed to lapse, she said, she doubts the Justice Department would prioritize enforcement in a tightly regulated state such as Maryland. She noted that the Trump administration has not moved against the eight states that have allowed marijuana sales for recreational use.
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"Given the sheer size of the industry and the number of people and businesses involved around the country, the federal government doesn't have the resources to prosecute everyone come Dec. 9," she said. "It would be politically stupid for President Trump's administration to prosecute people for medical marijuana, something that 93 percent of Americans support, especially when he repeatedly said he supported medical marijuana during his campaign."
Heise said Sessions wouldn't have to go after everybody in the distribution chain to have a chilling effect. She said one prosecution of someone like her could shut down the industry.
But she said it would also galvanize medical marijuana proponents.
"The idea that he's going to go after people who operating legitimately under state law is shocking," she said.
Taking a tour of ForwardGro, one of the 15 pre-approved medical marijuana growers in the state. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
Getting a look around the site of Curio Wellness' marijuana growing facility with CEO and co-founder Michael Bronfein and his daughter, director of marketing and fellow co-founder Wendy Bronfein. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)