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Pot-Shopping to Cure What Ails You

Inside a dispensary, there’s a dizzying array of medical ­marijuana selections to help you feel better. Here’s how to see for yourself.

     Step inside a Maryland medical cannabis dispensary and you feel like Alice in Wonderland. Eat me, drink me, smoke me, say the amazing controlled substances here, all Maryland-grown and produced to painstaking standards — though their clever packaging and branding does not reveal what will happen when you do. All this in a deli-style setting (yes, that’s what they call it) that more closely resembles a boutique wine bar than a display of products for pain or other afflictions.
     Smokers might choose mossy green buds of Mandarin Cookies, Bubblegum Diesel or Life Saver. Samplers of many of these allow you to sniff their skunky fragrance.
     In your friendly Maryland dispensary, you’ll also find stylish versions of the accouterment you’ll need to inhale your medicine: pipes, bongs and rolling papers. Not that you need to roll your own. Sleek black packages of Kavair Pre-Roll, priced at $35, contain neatly rolled joints.
     Prefer vaping? Choose from cartridges of cannabis oil called Garlic Cookies Sugar, Sumatran Sunrise, Rainbow X Afghan, High Chew, Skywalker or Shark Shock. No previewing what’s inside these packages; you’ll have to wait till you get home to find out what high you’ve bought.
     You can also drink an elixir or chew a gummy candy, both sold in assorted fruit flavors. Or, if you want your cannabis to look more like medicine, you can choose a tablet, capsule, tincture or cream.
     All this and more — and you can have any of it you can afford.
     Where’s the medicinal effect of all this, you wonder?
     That’s up to you to find out.
From the Legislature to You
     In 2014, the Maryland General Assembly made medical marijuana legal. We are one of now 33 states, plus the District of Columbia, where you can buy and use marijuana to heal what ails you.
     Recreational marijuana is not legal, though the idea is being tossed around in the legislature. In November, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational pot; New Jersey postponed a vote last week on its way to becoming the 11th.
     Under federal law no marijuana is legal; it remains a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance. But the feds have thus far turned off the heat in legalizing states.
     Our legislature not only legalized the drug but also gave it economic life, creating, “a successful but consumer-friendly medical cannabis industry in the state to provide patients affordable and adequate access to medical cannabis.”
     Here medical cannabis is a controlled substance, regulated every step of the way from seed to sale by a brand new and potentially highly profitable home-grown industry.
     After legislation passed, licenses were offered, and investors formed syndicates to bid for permission to process and distribute medical marijuana. How the licenses were allocated became a matter of dispute, with minority business interests crying foul. Counties had to get on board, and some bridled. In Anne Arundel, then-executive Steve Schuh first refused, then set up obstacles — which have now been lowered.
    It took three and a half years to get safe, Maryland-grown cannabis to its impatient patients.
     During those years, growers won their licenses, started their farms, planted their seed, kept their plants pure and uncontaminated and harvested their crops. Originally 15 growers were allowed (adding more is now being debated) statewide. One is in Anne Arundel County.
     Processors — 16 were allowed statewide — devised and packaged the new crop in many consumable forms and offered their wares to their customers.
     Those were the licensed distributors able to negotiate suitable locations, well distant from schools and homes. By late 2017, the early birds of Maryland’s eventual 102 dispensaries opened for business. 
     By the end of the program’s first year, sales were nearly $100 million. They’ve now reached $146 million.
Patients and Doctors
      To buy cannabis medically, you must be suffering from “any condition that is severe, for which other medical treatments have been ineffective [and whose] symptoms reasonably can be expected to be relieved by its use.”
     If that’s a little vague, the list that follows sounds pretty awful. Specified are “chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions that cause severe loss of appetite, wasting, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures or severe or persistent muscle spasms, or glaucoma or PTSD.”
     If you’re feeling that bad, you may well have put yourself at the head of the line, now 90,306 people long, who’ve legally qualified for medical cannabis.  
     However, it’s unlikely that your doctor directed you to the cannabis store. The drug has not yet passed into the conventional pharmacopeia, as you’ll see in the disclaimer posted by the Maryland State Medical Society, a membership organization of 6,000 medical practitioners, on its medical cannabis site:
While MedChi does not have a position on medical cannabis, we recognize that some members have decided to recommend cannabis to treat patients in the course of their practice. We recognize that cannabis is a complex and contentious issue and we make no assurances or warranties regarding … cannabis as a medical tool.
     Even doctors who recommend medical cannabis don’t prescribe it.
     It’s not prescribable in the way most drugs are, by duration, dosage and frequency. Instead, you get certified as an eligible buyer.
     But probably not by the medical professional treating all the ailments of body and mind that could make you long for the relief medical cannabis might offer.
     To certify patients, medical providers have to want to make it part of their practice, then apply for their own certification through the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which oversees the whole expanding industry from farm to patient.
     By law, any Maryland physician, podiatrist, dentist, nurse practitioner or midwife could certify you. Only 1,347 actually choose to do so. Most Maryland doctors don’t seek certification. They’re too busy, insufficiently knowledgeable, otherwise opposed or just not interested.
     “I have not chosen to prescribe medical marijuana in the current climate in which it is marketed and sold. I prefer to wait for the dust to settle,” said my family doctor.
     (Because the issue remains sensitive, I am naming neither doctors, patients nor afflictions in this story.)
     For medical providers who sign on, medical cannabis is a new revenue source. That revenue, $150 to $200 per patient, is by and large cash, as is the whole patient end of the medical cannabis trade.
      No need to go to your bank or ATM just yet. Between medical certification and you are many steps in a path you’ll have to create rather than follow.
The Path to Wonderland 
      Here’s the path I charted to become one of Anne Arundel County’s 8,972 registered medical cannabis patients. (Calvert County has 1,748.)
     First, I decided I’d qualify.
     “I want to get medical cannabis,” I told my doctor, a busy specialist. He didn’t mind, but it wasn’t part of his practice. If I wanted to try it, he’d provide my diagnosis. Step one, complete.
      Step two is immediately apparent to anybody who answers life’s questions by searching the web. I prefer learning from experience. So I started with Dr. Feelgood.
      Street spam led me there. 
     Illegally posted foam-core signs proclaiming those discomforts were my first invitation to seek relief with the MEDICAL MARIJUANA DOCTOR. Plus an 800-number. Graphics reinforced the message: a marijuana leaf rendered in the colors of the Maryland flag.
     I called.
     The telemarketer at the other end wanted to book me an immediate appointment in either Waldorf or Bowie. The appointment fee was $25. At the visit, I was told to bring along $175 in cash or a Visa card and “any documentation for whatever condition you’re seeking medical marijuana. Most anything would qualify.”
      If you missed those signs — and if you failed to read daily newspapers, where dispensary openings are reported — you might be out of luck. Medical cannabis is prohibited from many of the standard forms of advertising.
      I didn’t book. But the phone call gave me the link I’d been missing. The path to medical cannabis begins at
      Log on, click Process to Obtain Medical Cannabis, and you’re a step closer. Before you continue through its steps, snap a clear photo back and front of your driver’s license. You’ll also need a clear front-facing photo of yourself. Upload all three to the computer; you’ll need to attach them to your registration. There is no fee to apply, but your required patient ID card costs $50.
     Registration puts you into the system. Once you’re eligible to buy medical cannabis — and you’re not quite there yet — it enables all your purchases to be tracked. So it’s one more way that Somebody Up There is watching you.
       It may take several weeks before your certification number is emailed. While you wait you can start step three, finding a doctor to certify you.
It’s all online. Hop back to the home page and click on Providers.
      You’ll have to search the whole long list of 1,347 registered providers to find the right doctor, as it’s organized not for your convenience by alphabet or zip code but by certifying board — starting with Board of Podiatric Medical Examiners — and then zip code.
      Anne Arundel has 651 providers; Calvert just 11.
      You can find single certifying nurses in Chesapeake Beach, Crofton, Dunkirk and Solomons; four in Pasadena; six in Annapolis; seven in Severna Park. Among doctors, you can find one each in North Beach, Owings and Severna Park; two each in Crofton, Crownsville and Edgewater; three each in Prince Frederick and in Arnold; four in Pasadena; and 27 in Annapolis. Among dentists, you’ll find one in Severna Park, two in Annapolis and three in Pasadena.
       I sampled locations for hours and convenience before settling on one in walking distance from my office. By then I had my certification card, so I made an appointment for the same day. My certifying doctor turned out to be a holistically disposed internist whose practice includes treating pain. 
      The visit should take only 20 minutes, the receptionist promised. In that time the doctor would, by law, fill out a standard patient evaluation including “history, a physical examination, a review of symptoms and any other pertinent medical information.” It took longer.
      With my MMCC-issued Patient ID Number, the doctor issued my certification through the Commission’s secure online application. I paid my $150 in cash and left with my printed certification. 
      I was on my way to medical cannabis.
Through the Looking Glass
       Seventy-one Maryland dispensaries are open, from Allegany County to Cecil to Dorchester. Anne Arundel has two, in Linthicum and Edgewater, with at least two more pending. Calvert County, one-fifth Anne Arundel’s size, has one in Solomons.
      Mana Supply Co., where I visited, is situated on Rt. 2 just south of the South River Bridge. (In Hawaiian culture, Mana is spiritual energy of power and strength.) I drive by each day on my way to work and had watched its transformation from Susquehanna Bank. I even knew people who worked there. Now I’d get to see what was inside its patient-friendly exterior.
      Once you present your ID card, an expert who knows a whole lot about cannabis steps from behind a locked door to fetch you. 
      Traffic is brisk, and customers varied: recycled 1970s’ hippies; 21st-century semi-Goths; hipsters; soccer moms; construction workers dressed for the job; little old ladies with walkers; and older fellows in grandpa jeans.
      When it’s your turn inside (Mana has three service counters), you’ll likely be confused. That parade of products dazzles, I am told, even self-described marijuana connoisseurs.
      So you depend on your helper’s expertise to guide you through your product’s pedigree and attributes. You tell them what you’re hoping for — relief from anxiety or joint pain or nausea or, we’ve heard, a painkiller to lean on while breaking an opioid habit. And what kind of delivery system you’d like. They’ll try their best to make a match.
      Come prepared to take in lots of information. Product by product, you’ll learn whether it’s a body-comforting, relaxing indica or a sativa, which energizes as it soothes. You also learn about cannabinoids, THC, CBD and terpines — naturally occurring aromatic compounds like pinene and linalool.
      Bring cash; banks have been wary about dealing with a federally restricted commodity. (You’re legally allowed to have a little more than four ounces over a rolling 30-day period, which seems like an awful lot.)
       Dispensaries like Mana hope you’ll come often, and there are bargains advertised in daily texts, such as the one that arrived last week offering $10 off some of those buds.
      “It’s Frosti Friday,” the text read.