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Pot brownies, and other edibles, could be next for Maryland’s medical marijuana industry

Edibles on display inside a Good Meds medical cannabis center in Lakewood, Colo. Edibles cannot be sold in medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland. (Mathew Staver/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Medical marijuana patients can choose from a variety of flowers, pre-rolls and tinctures when they go to Potomac Holistics in Rockville.

What they cannot get are cannabis-infused edibles like brownies and chocolates. And customers ask for items like those “all the time,” manager Jacob Lawrence said.

“We sell them the flower and tell them to do their research on Google,” Lawrence explained, noting that recipes for edibles are easy to find online.

But he said customers are often nervous about getting the dosage correct when they are doing their own cooking, and about the smell that results from baking with cannabis.

“I like the smell,” he said, “But a lot of people who have pain also have children, and they don’t always want their children to know they are using marijuana.”

When Maryland launched its medical marijuana industry a few years ago, state lawmakers did not allow edibles, worried about their appeal to minors and whether they would have to be regulated as food products.

A bill being considered in the General Assembly this legislative session would eliminate that prohibition, allowing edibles to be sold in dispensaries and regulated by the state’s medical cannabis commission.

The bill, which was discussed in the Health and Government Operations Committee hearing this week, is not yet scheduled for a committee vote.

“Brownies are wonderful,” committee chair Shane E. Pendergrass (D-Howard) said when asked about the bill. “That’s all I need to say.”

Cooking-with-cannabis classes, where you can make your own edibles

Edibles — which are permitted in most jurisdictions nationwide that have legalized medical marijuana — provide an alternative for patients who would rather not smoke or who need the long-term pain relief that comes with ingesting cannabis, advocates say.

Regulating and selling the products in stores, they say, would also reduce the risk that comes when customers take the dosing and baking into their own hands.

“It’s kind of like a Wild West out there,” said Michael Chiaramonte, a physician who owns Haven dispensary in Brandywine and is president of the Maryland Medical Dispensary Association.

Most marijuana-related emergency room visits, he said, are caused by people who ingest too much THC in edibles.

“If the industry can produce it in a standardized fashion, then it will be much safer,” he said.

Depending on the dosage, the relief provided by edibles can last for up to six hours, compared with between one and two hours when smoking or vaping.

In addition to Maryland, the jurisdictions where medical cannabis is legal but edibles are banned from being sold are Hawaii, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit focused on marijuana policy revisions.

Ten states and the District have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, and all of them allow edibles, although Maine and Michigan are finalizing their regulations for the products.

Lawmakers in Maryland have said they will consider a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in 2020.

State Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), who sponsored the edibles bill, said marijuana products that could be eaten were banned in the legislation that legalized medical marijuana because supporters of the industry wanted to minimize possible sources of controversy.

“It was very, very, very difficult to get this bill passed,” she said, noting that she began pushing to legalize medical marijuana when she first took office in 2007. Legislation was not passed until 2013, and the first dispensaries did not open until 2017.

Maryland’s medical cannabis stores are already running out of pot

Glenn, who is registered with the state’s medical marijuana program for her arthritis, said she likes the idea of edibles because she hates taking pills, and “it doesn’t appear as medicinal as other forms.”

“I think they give people a higher level of comfort,” Glenn said.

The state now has nearly 55,000 certified medical marijuana patients, Joy Strand, the commission’s executive director, said at the hearing. The industry finished its first year of operation last year with $96.3 million in sales.

Maryland cannabis dispensaries are allowed to sell oils, tinctures and elixirs that can be ingested, which experts say has created a gray zone when it comes to what does and does not count as an “edible.” Glenn’s legislation would clarify what is allowed, they say.

At the hearing, House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) wondered aloud how to make sure the industry does not begin producing “lollipops that look like teddy bears,” which children could get their hands on even though state law limits medical cannabis to people 18 and older.

Glenn said the medical marijuana industry is no different from other medical industries and would make childproof packaging to keep cannabis edibles away from children. The commission would be responsible for creating those regulations.

When Glenn filed her bill in November, it used the term “food” to describe edibles, which would have meant that the Department of Health would have shared regulatory responsibilities with the cannabis commission.

To avoid “doubling the amount of regulatory work” necessary, the commission submitted an amendment that would change the term to “edible cannabis product,” explained William Tilburg, director of policy and government relations for the commission.

Another amendment to the bill also clarifies that the commission will establish regulations for edibles that stipulate what will be allowed in Maryland dispensaries.

Different states have adopted a range of regulations, according to a list compiled by the Marijuana Policy Project. In Utah, for example, edibles are permitted only if they are in a cube or rectangular shape, and in Connecticut, they cannot be allowed in the form of candy.

“It’s a line-drawing question,” Tilburg said.

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