Packaging for medical marijuana is displayed at Vireo Health of New York, a dispensary in White Plains, N.Y. New York is loosening some restrictions in its medical marijuana law to boost patient access. (Jennifer Peltz/AP)

Maryland patients are several months away from being able to legally obtain medical cannabis to treat chronic conditions. But scammers are already trying to make a buck off of patients desperate for the relief they seek from the drug, according to regulators and industry officials.

There are reports that companies are selling “marijuana cards” or offering exams to “preapprove” patients for medical cannabis.

Neither is a legitimate practice, officials say.

“They are telling patients that they have the ability to preapprove them for the medical cannabis program, and that is a lie,” said Darrell Carrington, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association. “There is no such thing as preapproval.”

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which regulates the industry, has issued preliminary licenses for companies to grow, process and dispense cannabis in the state. But none of the businesses have received final licenses or begun operation. No physicians have the ability to issue certifications for legal medical cannabis.

“We know there are already attempts at fake patient identification cards being promulgated,” Patrick Jameson, executive director of the commission, said in a statement. “This type of fraudulent activity preys against the most vulnerable people in society and we will do everything possible to stop this behavior. Only patient identification cards issued by the Commission are legitimate. At this point no ID cards have been issued.”

The state commission has received about 20 inquiries from potential patients reporting questionable claims by cannabis businesses, according to Vanessa Lyon, a commission spokeswoman.

Carrington said he is frustrated that companies are trying to dupe sick patients.

“They’re taking advantage of them because people are so desperate for the medication,” he said.

It is already a struggle for the emerging cannabis industry to win over skeptics. Dishonest operators don’t help, Carrington said.

“Groups that are operating nefariously and preying on people’s hopes and desires do a huge disservice,” he said.

Maryland’s medical cannabis system will not involve written prescriptions. And while the commission will offer patient identification cards, they won’t be required.

Doctors and patients will be required to join an online registry that will be monitored by state regulators. Doctors will use the system to issue online certifications for patients to use cannabis.

Doctors are able to join the registry now. The patient registry won’t open until sometime in early 2017, Lyon said.

A doctor’s certification for cannabis will be good for 120 days, and patients will be able to obtain only a 30-day supply of the drug at a time. Licensed dispensaries will check the state database before selling the drug.

Licensed dispensaries will verify a patient’s identity, either through government identification such as a driver’s license or an optional patient identification card issued by the cannabis commission.

All transactions will be monitored by the state commission.

It will be late 2017 at the earliest before any medical cannabis is available to Maryland patients, Lyon said.

None of the growers or processors have received final licenses or begun operation. The same is true for dispensaries, as state officials just issued preliminary licenses to them this month.

A number of factors will influence the timing of when legal medical cannabis will be available to patients.

All of the growers, processors and dispensaries will have to be up and running, with all of the challenges facing any new business.

State lawmakers could change the rules governing the medical cannabis program during the next General Assembly session, which begins Jan. 11.

And there are multiple lawsuits that have been filed over the licensing process that have yet to be resolved.

“We’re not there yet,” Carrington said. “We’re close. We’ll get there soon.”

— Baltimore Sun