At least 200 would-be customers were lined up outside Rockville's first medical marijuana dispensary Friday afternoon when one of the owners announced that a cannabis shipment — including elixirs, tablets and flowers — had arrived.
Bill Askinazi promised that everyone in line would go home with at least some marijuana, then said computer issues were delaying the start of sales, and rushed back inside.
Call it a soft opening for Maryland's long-awaited medical marijuana program, with at least one store opening Friday after nearly five years of bureaucracy and delays.
In addition to Askinazi's Potomac Holistics, Allegany Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Cumberland, near the Pennsylvania border, was expecting to serve customers, although the cannabis delivery was delayed into the night.
Five other dispensaries also told The Washington Post that they plan to start selling cannabis products in coming days. Wellness Institute of Maryland, in Frederick, said it had already made limited sales through a trial program but declined to provide further details.
Some people drove for more than an hour to get to the Rockville dispensary. Denise Broyhill came from Annapolis and was the dispensary's second customer. She exited the store just after 5:30 p.m., holding a newly bought cannabis flower and 20 yellow tablets.
Broyhill, who spent $104, said she is seeking pain management for a neurological problem, and was excited — and "relieved" — to be able to try something "new and different."
David Johnson, 38, who suffered nerve damage during a surgery nearly a decade ago, was third in line after arriving at 10:20 a.m. "I'm looking forward to no pain, no stress," he said. "I know you can't smoke it in the parking lot, but I won't make it too much past here."
The launch of the industry doesn't mean medical marijuana will be easy to buy. Because of low supply and high demand, dispensaries are limiting initial sales to patients who preregistered. And cannabis entrepreneurs say the first batches may be especially expensive because quantities are limited, only a few growers are ready to deliver, and businesses want to recoup hefty start-up costs.
"After six months, we'll be on par with what people will be paying in the black market," said Charlie Mattingly, who runs Southern Maryland Relief dispensary in Mechanicsville. "I just need my foot in the door; I'm not trying to gouge anybody in the first year . . . Every new market and new state starts a little bit high."
Health insurance plans do not cover the drug, which is illegal under federal law.
Allegany Medical said in a Facebook post that pot would cost $680 for an ounce, about a one-month supply. That's several times the cost in states like Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon, which have the country's largest legal marijuana markets. Sajal Roy, manager of Allegany Medical, said he expects the price to drop to about $560 by January. Michael Klein, who runs Wellness Institute of Maryland in Frederick, said his dispensary would sell medical marijuana for between $440 and $520 an ounce when it opens Monday. Mattingly said his prices would start at $400 per ounce and gradually drop.
Medical marijuana is now legal in more than half of U.S. states and the District. But in Maryland, for now, there are few places to buy it.
Ninety-two dispensaries that received preliminary licenses from the state nearly a year ago have yet to win final approval, and their deadline to do so is a week away. It's unclear whether the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission — which on Friday announced the appointment of health care executive Joy Strand as its third executive director in as many years — will extend the deadline.
Advocates say the launch of the program in Maryland is still a cause for celebration.
"The most important thing is that patients will be getting an opportunity for a new class of therapeutic drugs that will continue to expand as the science continues to expand," said Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), a physician who led the charge in the state legislature for medical marijuana.
Darrell Carrington, a lobbyist for medical marijuana companies, said some dispensary owners have been struggling to secure zoning approvals from local governments and to find landlords willing to rent to their businesses.
"It's going to be a little bit more drama, regrettably, at the beginning," he said. "However, everyone is over the moon that we finally have a program," he said.
In Frederick County, Kannavis of Ijamsville said it was planning to open Saturday.
Southern Maryland Relief said it would start sales Sunday, depending on the timing of shipments, while Peninsula Alternative Health on the Eastern Shore was looking at a Monday opening. Two dispensaries in Howard County planned to open later in December.
The Facebook post from Allegany Medical that listed the $680-per-ounce price prompted a variety of reactions.
"Guess I'll stick with black market," one Facebook commenter responded.
"I'll pay to be legal," another posted.
The opening of marijuana dispensaries angered some who oppose legalization. DeForest Rathbone, a resident of St. Mary's County and founder of the National Institute of Citizen Anti-Drug Policy, accused Maryland of creating "a de facto drug cartel . . . to promote and enable lucrative marijuana businesses to sell their dangerous, addictive, mind-altering, child-brain-poisoning, family-destroying pot products throughout the entire state of Maryland."
Although medical marijuana has won support from both Democrats and Republicans, who see the industry as a source of jobs and an alternative to addictive opioids, the opening of dispensaries has stirred opposition in some communities.
At Allegany Medical in Cumberland, the phones kept ringing and customers stopped in frequently all afternoon, only to learn that the armored truck carrying the drug hadn't arrived yet. One receptionist joked she would need a bottle of wine at the end of the night.
At 5:08 p.m., general manager Mark Van Tyne announced bad news: The shipment of marijuana, originally expected at 5 p.m., was delayed to 7:30 p.m. Even though the dispensary was supposed to close at 6 p.m., he promised that patients who had orders placed and couldn't wait would still get their drugs.
Walter Elliott, who is being weaned off opioid pills for chronic back pain, was among the few willing to stick it out. "I wouldn't miss it," the 60-year-old Frostburg resident said. "I haven't even smoked marijuana in 20 years or more, but you have to do something to help people get off the opioids."
The shipment arrived around 7:30 p.m., but lags in the computer system tracking marijuana slowed sales for another few hours. At least 25 people were still waiting in the lobby just before 10 p.m. as the first order was being packaged.
Soon after, the Cumberland dispensary made its first sale.
The dispensary, in a building across the street from Interstate 68, had giant "medical marijuana dispensary" signs unfurled outside. The lobby had a Christmas tree in the corner and wreaths hanging on the wall alongside posters of the drug.
Chris Mulvaney, a former Cumberland police officer turned dispensary security officer, marveled as he looked at a glass case filled with marijuana paraphernalia. "I come from a law enforcement background. I can't tell you how weird seeing this is," he said, gesturing to marijuana bowls and pipes. "I can't tell you how many of these I've crushed."
Nirappil reported from Cumberland.