For patients, a wait as medical cannabis industry puts down roots

There was a crowd on Thursday in the Hood College lecture room where Susan Audino, a chemist and Hood alumna, was scheduled to present on medical cannabis. A black plastic cauldron full of Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies was circulating among students, as were bright green stress relief toys shaped like bloated marijuana leaves.

Slightly out of place among students in sweatshirts and leggings were a quiet couple in their 70s, armed with a spiral-bound notebook and a ballpoint pen. Judy Wolfe was there for her husband, Roger, a chemo patient whose appetite disappeared after starting treatment. Four years after Maryland legalized marijuana for medical use, the two are still waiting for products to become available in the state.

“He keeps losing weight,” Wolfe said, gesturing to her husband. The Wolfes live in Knoxville, but registered Roger as a cannabis patient in Maryland through Green Health Docs, an evaluation clinic with locations in Frederick and Hagerstown.

“Products were supposed to be available in mid-September,” she continued. “Now, last we heard, we’re looking at January.”

In Frederick County — where 1,097 patients are registered with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission — and across the state, the wait for marijuana has extended far past the original date for when products would hit dispensary shelves. In August, the MMCC website listed sometime after Labor Day as the tenuous start of availability. The prospective date is now set as sometime by the end of fall, though the reality is anybody’s guess, said Mike Kline, who owns the state’s first licensed medical marijuana dispensary.

“Everything you’re hearing is really just an estimate or a personal opinion,” said Kline, whose dispensary — the Wellness Institute of Maryland — is based in Frederick. “These are all first crops in brand-new facilities. All the growers I know are very sophisticated, but it’s still the first crop.”

In Frederick County, two licensed growers are putting down roots and hoping for available product by this winter. One — Green Leaf Medical — is growing about 3,000 cannabis plants in a retrofitted facility on the outskirts of Frederick surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The plants aren’t ready for harvest yet, but co-owner Philip Goldberg is aiming for an initial yield of about 300 pounds a month when the plants finish their first growth cycle in mid- to late December.

A few miles away, Shakil Siddiqui is also monitoring the first round of cannabis crops in a facility off U.S. 15 that he co-owns with his son, Haris. Siddiqui was secretive about the number of plants and the anticipated yield, but hopes to harvest by early January at the latest.

“Frankly, there is a big learning curve,” Siddiqui said. “We’ve communicated with some dispensaries, but starting next month, when we have a firm date, we’ll be communicating with all of them.”

The wait for product has largely been driven by delays on the part of the MMCC, an agency that’s been embroiled in controversy as the cannabis industry continues to grow in Maryland. After complaints over nepotism and a lack of racial diversity in the licensing process, the commission finally awarded Stage 2 approvals to many growers later than originally expected.

As a result, many of them launched their first crops later than anticipated, expanding the wait for patients. The delay is also affecting other business owners. Kannavis — a second Frederick County dispensary with a location on Urbana Pike — is waiting until product is available to officially open, though the business received final approval from the MMCC on Tuesday, said owner Jane Klink.

The effect, Kline added, has been rippling through the entire medical cannabis industry.

“Everybody is anxious,” he said. “The growers are anxious, the commission is anxious, the patients are anxious. And people like me, with nine employees and no revenue, are very anxious.”

The effect on patients, especially, has been palpable, said Mike Woolf, the manager of Green Health Docs in Frederick. As an evaluation clinic — where patients can consult and receive referrals from physicians registered to prescribe medical marijuana in the state of Maryland — the Frederick location alone receives more than 400 calls a day. Some patients call every day, Woolf added, asking when product will be available.

“There’s one mother whose young child has cerebral palsy and really doesn’t function well, but they tried medical cannabis once at the recommendation of a friend and said the difference was night and day,” he said. “So, to hear her calling every day and asking, ‘When can I get help for my child?’ That’s heart-wrenching. These are patients who feel like they’re being denied better quality of life.”

There’s also no guarantee that cannabis will become available whenever the first of the state’s 12 licensed growers harvests a crop. Under Maryland law, cultivators must submit their product to independent testing from a licensed laboratory, with only one — in Baltimore — listed on the MMCC website. And because marijuana is a “collector” plant — with fast-growing roots that can easily absorb or store toxins from the environment — it can be more challenging to pass, Kline said.

Possible contamination is just one hurdle that Goldberg and his brother, Kevin, are hoping to avoid as the two owners wait for harvest at Green Leaf Medical. Across the state, growers face an especially exhaustive process with strict regulations on cultivation, tracking their plants and facility security.

Conquering Maryland, though, is just one part of the brothers’ overall branding and expansion strategy. The Goldbergs hope to expand into at least two other states, as well as Canada, and are cultivating 31 different medical cannabis strains at their facility in Frederick.

Some, like the aptly named “Painkiller XL,” are high in CBD, a cannabinoid found in medical marijuana that’s been observed to be effective at treating seizures and chronic pain. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t have psychoactive effects, which means patients can consume the drug essentially without getting high.

Other strains are higher in THC — the only psychoactive cannabinoid, and one known to stimulate appetite — while others have a more balanced blend. The brothers also hope to develop a breeding program to develop even greater combinations. But while some other growers eventually hope to see a recreational cannabis model passed in Maryland, they said, Green Leaf is strictly focused on medical cannabis.

“It’s medicine that we’re making here,” Kevin said.

“It’s not recreational,” Philip added. “We actually lobby against recreational use, because we think it pulls legitimacy away from the medical program. That’s one thing that really sets us apart.”