CUMBERLAND — Although Maryland’s four-year journey to establish a statewide medical marijuana program was often a rocky road, the industry has been experiencing steady growth in the number of patients and providers in the program’s first two years.
The program is nearing its second anniversary after going live in the fall of 2017.
Principals with two medical cannabis businesses in Allegany County are experiencing an increase in business. The Allegany Medical Marijuana Dispensary and Grow West MD have indicated strong sales.
“We just had the highest sales month (August) we’ve ever had,” George Merling, owner of the Allegany Medical Marijuana Dispensary on Beall Street in Cumberland, said. “The number of patients has grown significantly.”
The Maryland General Assembly approved medical marijuana during the 2013 legislative session. The Natalie M. LaParade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission was formed later that year to oversee the rollout.
State officials said the number of patients has more than tripled from the 18,000 people who first registered in Maryland to seek relief from severe pain, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.
There are currently more than 56,000 residents who are certified across Maryland to purchase medical cannabis. According to the Baltimore Sun, between 250 and 350 patients have been applying for the state registry each day.
Nearly 2 million transactions were recorded statewide by dispensaries in 2018, the first full year of the program, with $96.3 million in sales. Although totals for 2019 are not yet available, officials are expecting at least a 50% increase.
Merling’s dispensary helps people navigate the state registry process.
“We educate at our store,” Merling said. “It really helps the patients understand the process. When they come, we decide if they are eligible. Then they need to see a doctor and they need to contact the state and get registered.”
Jake Shade, Allegany County commissioner, called Grow West MD a “wonderful community partner” at a county meeting earlier this month. County Administrator Brandon Butler gave an update on Grow West, which is located in the former Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. complex on Kelly Road and is planning an expansion.
“In their short time in Allegany County, they have now over 90 jobs at the facility,” Butler said. “With this new expansion ... they are looking at hiring 50 to 70 more full-time jobs that will be ongoing. They are also dedicated to using local labor to the tune of about 80 to 100 jobs to retrofit and expand that building.”
Getting the medical cannabis industry off the ground in Maryland wasn’t easy. The four years spent ramping up the Maryland program was fraught with challenges and controversy.
Issues during the four-year rollout included the geographical dispersion of licensees, a lack of minority participation among potential licensees, participants having political ties, regulations on prescription cross-state travel and a lack of banking institutions willing to avoid potential conflict with the federal government, which has still not legalized medical cannabis.
Maryland cannabis businesses have faced a financial challenge as less than five banking institutions in the state are willing to take deposits from cannabis businesses.
“Basically anybody with the cannabis or marijuana in the name, they do not want your cash,” Merling said. “They will not allow it ... no transactions. You can’t get a loan. They are concerned with the federal laws.”
Merling said the biggest challenge has been cross-state travel. His dispensary sits within miles of the Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders.
“The biggest issue has been the suspension of the non-resident purchase,” Merling said. “We are a region; we have a regional hospital. But, the state suspended it the second week after we opened. You cannot purchase if you are out of state.”
Despite the challenges, Maryland’s cannabis business continues to grow.
More than 5,000 people are registered as caregivers — individuals who care for minors or disabled people using medical marijuana products. More than 1,300 medical professionals prescribe cannabis in the state.
A new round of licenses is due to be granted by the Maryland commission at the end of September. The latest round is expected to address the lack of minority participation discovered in the initial rollout.
Many states with a medical cannabis program have faced the issue of how to make bank deposits in a cash-only business. West Virginia, which approved medical cannabis in 2017, was supposed to go live with its program in July but has fallen behind schedule. Officials resolved the impasse in late August when the Charleston-based Element Federal Credit Union was selected to handle deposits.
Del. Mike Pushkin, D- Kanawha, a leading proponent of medical marijuana legalization, told the Beckley Register-Herald that implementation of the program has taken so long, in part, because the 2017 bill didn’t allow the same company to simultaneously be a grower and a dispensary, required a pharmacist or physician to be on-site and required medical marijuana patients to have a six-month relationship with the prescribing physician.
During a special session of the West Virginia Legislature in May, lawmakers removed the provision that a grower or processor may not be a marijuana dispensary.
The new legislation also allowed for more dispensaries in the state — up to 100, from 30, and allows patients to pre-register for the program.
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.