ANNAPOLIS — A subcommittee of the state’s medical cannabis committee delayed a vote Tuesday on a proposal to eliminate a round of testing of marijuana plants before they are sent for processing.
The proposed change, which was sought by some growers, was seen as a way to lower costs associated with the state’s medical cannabis program. The effort stalled Tuesday as patient advocates raised concerns about how eliminating a round of testing might adversely affect consumer health and safety.
Charles Smith, chair of the policy committee and vice chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, said public comment on the changes raised “legitimate concerns” about how patient health and safety could be affected.
“I understand the economic impacts of multiple testing currently,” Smith said. “Any time there’s an issue of … consumer safety, I think we need to vet it just a little bit more.”
The policy committee, a subgroup of the state Medical Cannabis Commission, was expected to take up a vote to recommend the changes to the full commission, an initial step in the regulatory process.
Currently, growers are required to submit samples of their product for testing before it can be transferred to processors or dispensaries. That testing is duplicated by processors, who use the plants to make derivative products.
“So what this has created, essentially, is double testing of products that are going to processors,” said Will Tilburg, director of policy and government relations for the commission.
The proposed changes would require testing only before the product is sent to dispensaries for purchase by patients.
While some growers and processors said they supported the proposed changes, some advocates expressed concerns about product safety.
Rita Montoya, director of Americans for Safe Access Maryland and a medical cannabis patient, asked the committee not to alter the current testing requirements.
“We understand that costs are a concern for license holders and we can appreciate that, but safety is a concern for patients,” said Montoya, a former criminal defense attorney. “We’re concerned that if there is a product recall it will create chain of custody issues and it will take longer to figure out where the tainted or the bad cannabis or bad product is.”
Jake Van Wingerden, president of Cecil County-based SunMed Growers, said the changes would allow growers like himself to ship cannabis products to processors that would otherwise fail testing because of microbial or fungal contamination. The processors would sanitize the plants as they extract their oils for use in tinctures and other products, which would be tested before being used by patients.
Van Wingerden said that grade A cannabis can be sent to dispensaries after testing but that lower-grade product must be processed to be usable. The testing, he said, should happen before the product can be sold to patients.
“Think of (cannabis flower) like fruit,” Van Wingerden said. “The apples that you buy in the grocery store are the perfect specimens. If they are misshapen or have insect damage, there are holes in it, that goes to make applesauce. It’s similar in our grow.”
The committee did give preliminary approval to a number of other regulatory changes, including a proposal to limit the number of dispensaries that can be owned or controlled by a single entity.
The new regulations are meant to bring the commission into compliance with a law passed earlier this year that sought to address the incidence of larger companies being hired to manage operations at dispensaries they don’t own.
Previous state law limited the number of dispensary licenses that could be owned to one. The law, however, was silent on management agreements.
Critics, including smaller independent dispensaries, said the agreements were quickly becoming a way for large, out-of-state interests to corner the market by allowing control of multiple shops.
The new law limits the number of dispensaries that can be owned or managed by a single entity, in any combination, to four.
The proposed regulations also reduce the fee for new investors seeking an interest in an existing dispensary license. Currently, the license holder and the entity seeking to obtain an interest in a license were required to pay $7,000 each. Officials said that fee discouraged small, local investors. The proposed rule would require those investors to pay $500 but leaves in place the $7,000 transfer fee for the current license holder.
Tilburg said the lower license fee would also encourage diversity by allowing minorities to become investors.
Recommendations of the committee now head to the full commission. If approved, they will be sent to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review.