Weeding it Out

As Marijuana laws relax, is Frederick County joining the party?

By Margarita Raycheva | Posted on 04.01.15 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

When businessman Philip Goldberg peeks into Frederick County, he sees green, and it’s not just money. It is here, somewhere in the southwestern part of the county, that Goldberg hopes to transform a vacant warehouse into one of the first medical marijuana cultivation centers in Maryland.

“There is an obvious profit potential,” says Goldberg, who currently runs an advertising agency in Montgomery County.It will be at least another year before regulators allow medical marijuana businesses to open in Maryland, but Goldberg’s company, Green Leaf Medical, LLC, has been planning for a year to apply for one of 15 licenses that will be awarded to growers in the state under a new medical marijuana program.

He envisions a sophisticated indoor facility, where medical cannabis could be grown and processed in a sterile, controlled environment. With background checks for employees, 24/7 video surveillance and a “seed-to-sale” computer tracking system for each plant, the facility aims to operate like a secure pharmaceutical facility. “This is real medicine,” Goldberg says, “so you have to get it just right.”

While state regulators are still determining the rules for Maryland’s nascent medical cannabis industry, Goldberg has already developed a business plan, secured funding and attracted a grower with experience in cultivating cannabis from Colorado. “We have been in this from the get-go,” Goldberg says.

“I want to make sure we know exactly what we are doing.” Goldberg looked into basing the business in Montgomery County but was deterred by high leasing costs. In Frederick County however, he found cheaper lease alternatives and a convenient commute. He plans to hire locally and estimates the business could bring in up to $850,000 a year in jobs for the area. While he has not signed a lease just yet, Goldberg hopes to base the business in an industrial area that he says is far from homes and schools. “No one is ever going to see marijuana going out,” he says. “No one is going to ever smell marijuana coming from us.”

“We haven’t moved forward with briefing the county executive because the rules are still changing.”

Goldberg’s group is one of seven groups that have already contacted the county about either growing or selling medical marijuana, said Helen Propheter, manager of the Frederick County Office of Business Retention and Development. Propheter could not disclose the names of the groups. But they all come from outside of the county and are hoping to hire locally, drawing from the area’s unique blend of agriculture, manufacturing and bioscience industries, she says. “This is still very, very new,” says Propheter. “We haven’t moved forward with briefing the county executive because the rules are still changing.”

As laws relax to decriminalize and allow broader uses of marijuana for medicinal and personal uses, Frederick County finds itself at a crossroads of sorts between expansion and regulation, hazy legalization and unclear enforcement, and recreational users and those who see the drug as having a more practical effect.

It’s The Law …Or Is It?

Taking a cue from states across the nation, Maryland legislators last year took steps to reform existing marijuana-related laws. A new law that took effect last Oct.1 decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana by creating civil fines for offenders—replacing criminal penalties and possible jail time.

Meanwhile, legislators also voted to allow patients with debilitating conditions to legally obtain medical marijuana from licensed growers. But even though the new laws have been in effect for months, their implementation continues to stir questions and concerns. “The new law was so open-ended that it left us with more questions than answers,” says Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, who testified against the decriminalization legislation last year. “The law wasn’t broken and we did not need to fix it.”

Under the new law, marijuana remains illegal, but penalties for possession of 10 grams or less are significantly lighter than in the past. Offenders now receive a civil citation and pay a fine, which does not generate a criminal record, and they are not sent to jail. Fines are up to $100 for a first offense, to $250 for a second offense and to $500 for subsequent offenses.

Previously, possession of marijuana in Maryland was a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum of 90 days jail time. (Selling or growing marijuana in the state remains a felony.) But there is no way to track offenses in multiple jurisdictions to determine the correct fines, Smith says. Someone who gets a citation for smoking 10 grams of pot or less in Frederick could potentially be caught with the same amount in Hagerstown and again get a first-offense fine.

“The law was written in such a way that it makes it virtually unenforceable,” Smith says. Legislators also did not address the issue that possession of marijuana paraphernalia remains a criminal offense, says Capt. Troy Barrick of the Frederick County Sheriff ’s Office. This created the odd scenario that possession of rolling papers or a pipe with trace amount of marijuana results in tougher penalties than possession of a bag with 10 grams of loose marijuana buds, Barrick says.

The Maryland General Assembly is considering legislation this year to fill these gaps in the law, but it might not fix the issue that causes the biggest concern for law enforcement: probable cause to conduct a search. When possession of any amount of marijuana was a criminal offense, a police officer could safely consider the smell of pot as a probable cause to conduct a search, says Lt. Dwight Sommers, commander of the Frederick Police Department’s Special Operations.

But the law does not specify if police should search when a suspect is caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana, Sommers says. How could an officer smell the difference between 5 grams and 15 grams? “You would have to physically see that they have more than 10 grams,” he says. That may be one reason why marijuana related arrests in the city have dropped dramatically since the decriminalization law went into effect, Sommers says.

Frederick Police recorded 49 marijuana-related arrests between July and September last year, but that dropped to six arrests between October and December, according to Sommers. Between October and December, Frederick Police also issued five civil citations. Since the law went in effect, Sommers has not noticed more people trying to smoke marijuana in public, as critics of the law had feared. However, he also does not believe officers now have more time to focus on more serious crimes, as advocates had predicted. “We are still dealing with [marijuana],” he says.

After the law went in effect in October, both the Frederick County Sheriff ’s Office and Frederick Police conducted training to ensure that officers understand the new law and can visualize 10 grams of marijuana – roughly the amount of cannabis buds that can fill a man’s palm. Since the law first took effect, in many cases they had to educate people about the meaning of the new law.

“People think the law made it all legal,” said Capt. Ron Hibbard of the Frederick County Sheriff ’s Office. “I think that people are more comfortable carrying it around now.” Frederick County Sheriff Charles Jenkins, however, expressed concern that relaxing the laws on marijuana sends the wrong message to young people. “I was opposed to any decriminalization,” he said. “I believe that marijuana is a gateway drug. About 80 to 90 percent of drug users start with marijuana…. We are basically telling our young people that it is OK to get stoned.”

“It particularly impacts low-income students. We don’t think that a young person deserves such a mark on their record.”

Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project disagrees. She believes the change in the law is helping eliminate racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests and prevents young people from having a permanent stain on their record. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, in 2010 African Americans made up 9 percent of the population but represented 25 percent of all marijuana-related arrests in Frederick County. “Even a simple arrest record can interfere with a person’s ability to get a job or go to college,” Yeung says. “It particularly impacts low-income students. We don’t think that a young person deserves such a mark on their record.”

The Marijuana Policy Project supports legalization of recreational marijuana, an issue that legislators in Annapolis are debating this year, along with a number of other legislative changes. One bill calls for legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to that of tobacco and alcohol. The bill would remove penalties for the use and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, allow growing up to six plants and allow a limited number of businesses to sell marijuana.

Though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, a number of states have recently adopted laws legalizing or decriminalizing its use. In February, Alaska and Washington, D.C. joined Washington and Colorado in legalizing possession of marijuana. Later this year, a similar law will take effect in Oregon,
where voters decided to end marijuana prohibition last November. According to NORML, an advocacy group supporting legalization, Maryland is one of 31 states in the nation considering some form of marijuana law reform, including decriminalization, expunging past records from marijuana arrests, medical access or full legalization.

“Time Is Of The Essence”

In Maryland, the decision last year to revive the state’s stalled medical marijuana program replaced a previous plan created in 2013 that relied on academic medical centers to distribute the drug to patients. The initiative died because not a single medical academic center signed up.

Advocates this year have praised the work of the 15-member Medical Marijuana Commission, which is working to set up the new program in the state. And yet, there are still potential pitfalls that could affect the application of the program. For example, it is still unclear how many doctors will sign up to participate in the program.

Under the new law, patients and caregivers in Maryland will need the approval of a participating doctor in order to purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary. In its proposed guidelines, the commission also requires doctors to go through a training course before they can sign up, which could be a deterrent, says Yeung. “Doctors will have to take time out of their day,” she says. “And we don’t know how involved this training will be.”

However, there is no danger that no doctors will sign up. “We know there are certainly doctors that are interested,” Yeung says. Even if the program is successful this year it may still come too late for four-year-old Frederick twins Byron and Nicolas Deliyannis. The boys suffer from Miller-Dieker syndrome, a rare and terminal form of epilepsy, which causes brain deformities and seizures.

Children with the condition rarely live past infancy, so the twins are already beating the odds, says their mother, Shannon Moore. The boys were diagnosed when they were four months old and have been suffering from daily seizures ever since. Last year, the seizures became so intense that the boys could no longer eat on their own and had to have feeding tube surgery to avoid the a risk of pneumonia.

“They have seizures all day every day,” says Moore, who has seen her children battle up to 60 attacks in a day. Medical marijuana is Moore’s last hope to provide the boys with relief. “My kids are currently on four different types of medications,” she says. “I have tried pharmaceuticals that can make them go blind; I have tried pharmaceuticals that can destroy their liver.”

Moore learned about medical marijuana’s potential as an alternative treatment for epilepsy from a CNN documentary. “I used to think that medical marijuana is a joke, too,” she says. As she started looking into the topic, Moore discovered an entire community of parents dealing with the same issues.

Because they could not legally obtain medical marijuana in Maryland, at least two of those families have already moved to weed-legal Colorado. “It is a very real situation for these families,” Moore says. Moore and her husband made the difficult decision to stay in Maryland.

Last year, she testified in support of the new medical marijuana program in the state. While she does not know for sure if medical marijuana could help her boys, Moore believes she and other Maryland parents should at least have the opportunity to try. State Del. Karen Lewis Young, DFrederick, says it is important for the general public to understand that medical marijuana is not a substance that gets you high. In many types of medical marijuana there are very low concentrations of THC— the psychoactive ingredient in the plant—and high concentrations of CBD, a nonpsychoactive substance.

Young worked with Moore last year to advocate for a reform in the state’s medical marijuana laws. This year she is supporting other bills that seek to expand access to medical marijuana even further, including a proposal to allow medical cannabis patients from other states to obtain medicine through the program. And she is sponsoring a bill, which would allow qualifying patients to obtain more than a 30-day supply of medical cannabis. But she warns delays in the program could be fatal. “Time is of the essence,” Young says. “Some of these children have a very limited life expectancy.”