Medical marijuana has re-emerged as a contentious issue in Maryland as officials debate how much control local jurisdictions should have over where growers and dispensers set up shop once the state begins issuing licenses next year.
Members of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission fielded questions about the matter on Thursday during the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in Ocean City, saying operators will have to meet local zoning requirements in order to obtain licenses.
Nonetheless, some local officials have expressed skepticism about whether current law gives them enough control over locations for the facilities.
Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D), who supports medical marijuana, introduced a measure this month to prohibit dispensaries from setting up near residential areas, schools and daycare centers.
Almond suggested at the conference on Thursday that counties can’t be sure whether they’ll have the control they need under the state’s current medical-marijuana laws.
“I don’t think that was addressed in the state bill,” the councilwoman said during a question-and-answer session with the commission. “I think the counties have to look at that as we’re moving forward.”
Maryland Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) responded harshly to Almond’s proposal last week, saying that “we’re not going to permit some councilperson to willy-nilly gum up progress on this issue,” according to a Daily Record article.
Zirkin said he is drafting legislation of his own to prevent local governments from imposing zoning rules that would effectively prevent medical marijuana operations from opening. “One Maryland, one law,” he told the Daily Record.
Hannah Byron, executive director of the medical-cannabis commission, assured audience members that the dispensaries will not be obvious, regardless of where they locate.
“These are not going to be neon lights on Main Street,” she said. “These are going to be like very boring medical offices.”
Byron said the facilities will also have strict security requirements, including 24-hour surveillance, fencing, alarm systems and vaults.
After the session, Sen. Steve Hershey (R-Queen Anne’s), who opposes medical marijuana, asked Byron and commission member Debra Miran why the state shouldn’t impose a sales tax on the drug.
“We didn’t feel it was appropriate,” Miran said. “We’re trying to help sick people.”
Maryland’s General Assembly approved the state’s medical-marijuana program in 2013, but the rules were so strict that no companies offered to participate. Lawmakers amended the law in 2014 and in 2015, establishing a regulatory system designed to be more attractive to investors.
The revised program allows up to 15 companies to grow marijuana and 94 businesses to set up dispensaries — two for each of the state’s Senate districts.
The medical-marijuana commission is expected to finalize its regulations for the program in September, at which time it would begin accepting applications for licenses. The awardees would likely begin operating sometime during the second half of 2016, after going through a rigid inspection process.