FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Dr. Paloma Lehfeldt dreams of a world where the stigma around medical cannabis is gone, cannabis crimes are expunged and patients are swiftly able to get the care they need.
It might be a long shot, but she’s confident the opening of Green Goods — a new dispensary in the Hillcrest Shopping Center in Frederick — is a step in the right direction.
Green Goods is the retail brand of Vireo, a cannabis grower and wholesaler with more than 100,000 square feet of greenhouse space in Maryland. Lehfeldt, Vireo’s director of medical education, said Green Goods is part of Vireo’s mission to make retail spaces more accessible to the public, featuring curbside pickup, high-quality brands and bright interiors.
The opening comes at a time when the state is wrestling with issues surrounding both medicinal and recreational marijuana, equity and criminal justice in the state legislature.
Lehfeldt says Green Goods’ message is focused on inclusivity and advocacy for reform of cannabis law at the state and federal levels. Cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it can’t be covered by insurance, is criminalized in most states and even requires licensed retailers to operate as cash-only businesses.
Green Goods works with local organizations to hold expungement information clinics for people convicted of cannabis-related crimes.
“This is something that is really important to us because cannabis crimes are lifelong convictions. They follow people throughout their entire life,” Lehfeldt said. “They’re not able to get federal housing, student loans, all of the above.”
Maryland legalized medical cannabis use in 2014. Since then, 17 growers and 102 dispensaries have opened with licenses in the state, according to data from the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC). There are currently more than 125,000 holders of medical cannabis ID cards in Maryland, up from 87,000 at the end of 2019.
The statewide market continues to grow. Maryland dispensary sales increased from $33.5 million in March 2020 to $46.4 million in January 2021, according to MMCC. Dispensaries like gLeaf and Kannavis have operated in Frederick for several years, and Sweet Buds, a locally-owned dispensary, opened in January on New Design Road.
But the industry’s growth can only be sustained if state and federal laws change, Morgan Fox, the media relations manager of the National Cannabis Industry Association, wrote in an email. As it stands now, there are limits on how many businesses can apply for grower and dispensary licenses at the state level, and federal law makes it near impossible to secure capital.
“Removing cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances and regulating cannabis products at the federal level would go a long way toward reducing some of the challenges facing cannabis businesses and applicants,” he wrote. “But there is much that can be done at the state and local level, including removing license caps for cannabis businesses, reducing taxes and providing resources immediately to social equity license applicants to help level the playing field.”
Lehfeldt said cannabis’ spot on the Schedule 1 list also makes it difficult for it to be embraced by the medical industry. Currently, most doctors are not trained in cannabis well enough to refer their patients to get medical cards. Only 13 percent of medical schools provide training on the benefits of cannabis.
“I’m a physician myself, and I’ve seen firsthand that people are not benefiting from pharmaceuticals all the time,” Lehfeldt said. “And this is really an alternative to a lot of these pharmaceuticals that we see.”
Medical cannabis can help with symptoms of chronic pain, chemotherapy, PTSD and various other ailments. It’s often called the “plant of a thousand medicines,” Lehfeldt said, because of its variety of purposes.
“I think anybody can walk in here — from a pediatric patient to an 80-year-old — and find something that’s able to really improve their quality of life, help with pain symptoms, help them sleep or aid in mental health,” she said.
Green Goods has full-time pharmacists in store to help patients choose what would work best for them. The process of finding the right dose, THC and CBD ratio and form of cannabis is usually something patients work out at a dispensary rather than with their doctor. Doctors cannot prescribe cannabis — they can only refer them to get their medical cards.
“Everybody’s different. I mean, some people want high THC. Some people want to try out terpenes, which are non-specific to cannabis plants,” she said. “We really want to make this experience not overwhelming because there are so many different formulations and different add-ons.”
In order to assist different groups who might have obstacles in obtaining medical cannabis, Green Goods offers a 20 percent discount for seniors 65 and older on Thursdays and a 22 percent discount for veterans every day through Initiative 22, a Baltimore-based nonprofit.
Eryck Stamper, founder of Initiative 22, chose the number 22 to represent the number of veterans who die every day by suicide. He served in the Navy for 23 years and has been advocating for cannabis legislation for years. One of the main hurdles to veterans’ access to cannabis is affordability, he said.
“This medicine is quite expensive. I personally spend $1,500 monthly, $18,000 annually with my disability check from the military,” Stamper said. “It all goes towards my medicine.”
Another hurdle to access is a law that states individuals who have gun licenses cannot obtain medical cannabis cards and vice versa due to cannabis’ Schedule 1 status. This prohibits many veterans and other gun owners from obtaining access to cannabis. House Bill 415, which is currently in the Maryland House of Delegates, could change that.
There’s also federal law on the table. The MORE Act could also de-schedule cannabis completely. It was passed by the House in a previous Congress but never made it through the Senate. The measure could stand a better chance with a Democratic majority now, according to an article in Forbes.
The state’s House Bill 32, which would have put criminal justice reforms into place and change state regulation of marijuana use, did not make it through crossover in the House last week.
But both Stamper and Lehfeldt are optimistic about the future.
“We really want to welcome the Frederick community as much as possible, pairing with local businesses just really showing patients this is an alternative to a lot of pharmaceuticals,” Lehfeldt said.