Maryland is in the midst of issuing a select number of licenses for growing, processing and selling medical cannabis, and at least one applicant hopes to tailor her product to the Jewish community by making it kosher.
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission reported Nov. 12 that it had received 882 applications, 705 of which were for dispensary licenses. State law allows about 100 dispensary licenses to be awarded.
Among those mounds of paperwork are applications from Pikesville resident Jessica White, who got interested in medical cannabis through clientele she works with at the holistic health practice she and her husband have owned for seven-and-a-half years.
“I was just looking for something else to do in medicine, and we have a bunch of patients who are great candidates, and we can’t offer it at our current clinic,” she said.
Her patients, many of whom are seniors, suffer from diseases such as diabetes, neuropathy and stenosis. She is concerned that without cannabis available to them, they will be forced to use less desirable drugs.
“They’re not good candidates for surgery, and they’re in tremendous pain,” she said. “And the worst is when they just vanish from us because they can’t even make it to our office. And sometimes they just stop functioning entirely.”
White is applying for a processing license near Westminster and dispensary licenses in locations that include Carroll County, Dundalk, Middle River and Pikesville. She is scheduled to find out which, if any, licenses she will be awarded between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, although that is likely to be delayed due to the high volume of applications.
An applicant may choose only one senatorial district in which to set up a dispensary, and each of the 47 districts may only accommodate two. Despite the heavy competition, White said she is optimistic.
“It doesn’t matter how many there are; it matters how many there are in the areas that I applied,” she explained. “So how many people applied in Pikesville? That’s my competition.”
White selected the Westminster site for growing due to its proximity to several sites where grower applicants have chosen to set up operations, which she feels would streamline the production process.
“If you’re just moving it across the street, that’s a lot easier than shipping it from Eastern Shore,” she said. “There wouldn’t be a transportation cost if we all get it. Who knows in the end? It’s a really backwards process because you’re applying without knowing where everybody else is.”
Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), a Baltimore County physician and longtime supporter of medical cannabis who sponsored the bill that originally set up the commission, said he was a little surprised by the flood of applicants.
“But I think it’s a good thing, because it gives the commission a lot of excellent people to choose from,” he said. “There are a lot of — from what I can gather — experienced, qualified, responsible people — and organizations — who have applied.”
State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) said he is not surprised by the large amount of interest in the program and that he is pleased residents across the state will soon have access to the drug.
“This is about medication for patients,” he said. “Cannabis has shown itself in a number of ways to be an effective treatment and in many ways less severe in terms of the side effects than OxyContin.”
Zirkin, a longtime proponent of medical cannabis, said it is important to remove the stigma the drug often carries with it.
“What is clear is that we need to treat all Marylanders the same if they have a disease,” he said. “This should be treated like any other medication just as long as local jurisdictions give patients the ability to get it.”
Zirkin has criticized Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh for his proposal to institute an outright ban on cannabis in the county, which did not receive enough votes to pass.
“Local governments should not be in the business of violating state law,” he said. “If a medical doctor believes this is an appropriate medication, politics should not stand in the way.”
If White is awarded a dispensary license in Baltimore County, she faces the challenge of navigating a series of regulations Baltimore County has implemented. Growing and processing sites must be located in industrial zones and dispensaries in business districts no less than 500 feet from a school and 2,500 feet from each other. A key target for White is the Reisterstown Road corridor in Pikesville, much of which is zoned as a commercial revitalization district and only permits dispensary locations by special exception. Councilwoman Vicki Almond said county officials had heard horror stories about regulating cannabis in Colorado and did not want the county’s main roads to be inundated with dispensaries.
“By passing the law, we’re able to say clearly, here’s where you can go,” she said. “You can only have two per legislative district. You’re not going to have 25 in any certain legislative district.”
In order to become certified kosher, White must send in an application to the Orthodox Union after the state grants her a license. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the OU’s Kashrut Department, said it has not yet began to certify medical cannabis, but he has spoken with a number of companies that are interested.
“We would have to visit the facility or facilities where the product is produced, make sure the products are kosher, and equipment is only used for kosher purposes,” he said.
Elefant said the cannabis plant itself is kosher, but all of the ingredients used to make medicinal products must pass the test. He anticipates the process taking between four and six weeks.
Elefant said the OU is not involved in determining the moral status of the drug, but it does not object to patients using it who receive a prescription from their doctor.
“We strongly believe that everyone should do what they are qualified to do,” he said, adding that the OU does not plan to approve recreational use of the drug. “We don’t claim to be doctors. We don’t claim to be people who know what the right thing or the wrong thing is.
“There are unfortunately individuals who are in pain, and actually medical marijuana is very helpful to them,” he continued. “And we feel that it’s only right that we make that product available to the individuals who want it.”
The OU’s Debbie Kaufman, who has been in contact with White, said the organization has also received medical cannabis applications from producers in New York, Oregon and Florida.
White has selected sites for dispensaries in all districts except Pikesville, where she said the two property owners she has spoken with so far do not want to deal with the drug.
“We’d have to find an individual who owns a building and would lease it to us or sell it to us,” said White. “The corporate owners don’t want this use. So if we get a license, we’ll buy a building.”
White’s business, if approved, would sell topical ointments and flowers, but the flower would be used only in vaporizers, not joints.
“It will look like a high-end jewelry store, where you lock up the valuables in a safe,” she said. “There’s going to be such restricted access, and when you come into the dispensary it’s not going to be a head shop.”
Depending on what type of license she wins, White said she may still produce cannabis and market it to the Jewish community.
“It’s more difficult,” she said. “I don’t think it will be when we get a license. Even if we don’t get dispensing here, if we get processing here, we’ll process kosher cannabis to whoever is in Pikesville, to whoever wins.”
Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.