Regulators approved Maryland's first medical marijuana dispensary on Wednesday, authorizing a Frederick company to open its doors immediately even though the drug will not be available for months.
The Wellness Institute of Maryland plans to start seeing patients Thursday and take what owner Michael Kline called "pre-orders" for cannabis.
"We are fully equipped to deliver medicine as soon as we have it," Kline said minutes after the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission approved his license.
Although Maryland legalized medical marijuana more than four years ago, just one firm is authorized to grow it. That first crop is not expected to be ready until after Labor Day.
The commission also on Wednesday delayed a vote to authorize a second grower, Curio Wellness in Baltimore County. A commissioner said the panel has requested additional information from Curio, but would not discuss the issue publicly.
Curio CEO Michael Bronfein called the move "regrettable," and said the commission never made him aware of any missing information. He said state inspectors approved his facility on June 14.
"Our state of the art facility is ready," Bronfein said in a statement. "Every day the commission fails to provide our stage two license delays patients access to safe, reliable, and effective medicine."
The remaining companies picked to launch Maryland's marijuana growing and processing industry have just six weeks to secure a final license or risk losing out on the state's lucrative market.
A year ago, the commission awarded 15 preliminary growing licenses and 15 preliminary processing licenses. If those firms are not granted final licenses by Aug. 15 — a year from when they were selected — the commission could revoke the companies' opportunities to work in Maryland's medical marijuana industry.
"The clock is ticking," said Patrick Jameson, the commission's executive director.
Jameson said the commission plans to meet more frequently in the coming weeks to approve those licenses after each applicant undergoes a final state inspection. The commission also picked 102 companies to open dispensaries across the state, but they do not face the same Aug. 15 deadline.
The state's medical marijuana program has been beset by controversy and lawsuits over how the state picked winning firms and whether minority-owned companies could fairly compete for the licenses. Some state lawmakers are pushing to remake the commission and award more licenses.
The limited supply of growers and the broad base of potential patients made Maryland a highly sought after market that attracted hundreds of applications to launch the program. Already, nearly 9,000 patients have signed up to register with the state, and that count does not include the out-of-state patients who are permitted by law to buy marijuana here.
Regulators, concerned about potential fraud, are reconsidering regulations governing how out-of-state patients are allowed to register with the cannabis commission. Jameson said they hope to have a resolution soon.
Meanwhile, fewer than 300 doctors have registered to recommend the drug — less than 2 percent of the state's 16,000 physicians.
Last month, a new law took effect that further broadened access to the drug — authorizing dentists, podiatrists, mid-wives and nurse practitioners to recommend marijuana. So far, fewer than 20 of those providers have signed up to do so.
In Frederick, Kline and his team plan to offer home delivery of medical marijuana to qualified patients once it is available.
Wellness Institute of Maryland, he said, will operate more like a doctor's office than a retail store. Patients' consultations with cannabis professionals will take about an hour and they will be asked to keep an electronic diary, he said. The company doesn't plan to advertise to the public.
"Many, if not most people, won't be interested in our model," Kline said. "They would like to go in like it's a strip mall or a 7-Eleven."
Kline said his niche is to appeal to patients who might be apprehensive about taking a federally controlled substance. The firm plans to counsel each patient on what strains might be best and how to administer the lowest dose that's effective.
"For example, is it appropriate to use a vape pen? How do you do that?" Kline said.
Patients can sign up for an appointment by visiting Kline's website or calling the company. Even though the drug won't be available until September at the earliest, Kline said his firm is ready to take on "all the paperwork that's doable."