Maryland’s Medicinal Cannabis Industry Responds to Ensure Safe Patient Access During COVID-19 Crisis

Maryland’s Medicinal Cannabis Industry Responds to Ensure Safe Patient Access During COVID-19 Crisis

Amid unprecedented uncertainty, industry insiders encourage staff safety and stakeholder education for patient access

Dispensaries, growers, processors and independent testing laboratories licensed under the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) are healthcare providers and considered essential businesses under the Health-General Article. 

While licensees remain open to serve Maryland’s 96,000+ certified patients, staff safety and patient access remain key concerns for the industry. The MMCC took early action to support those concerns with new safety guidelines that it released on March 11, 2020, before the state had seen it’s 10th case of COVID-19.

Under these guidelines both state and industry leadership remain confident in their ability to provide patients with medical solutions with few service interruptions. However, success hinges on unanimous compliance with strict safety regulations. 

Curaleaf, out of Reisterstown, MD, released a statement on April 8, 2020, about their commitment to “heightened safety and hygienic measures.” Their increased safety procedures include, “facility sanitization twice per day; utilizing professional cleaning services to deep clean and sanitize all common areas including the lobby, lunch/break room, security office, locker room, bathrooms, and offices; machine trimming and packaging (as opposed to staff); social distancing; increased hand-washing and personal sanitization; [and] required proper mask and glove use.”

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Maryland approaches its peak, licensees continue to innovate to deliver services to their patients as safely as possible. 

For example, with many patients already immunocompromised and at a higher risk of infectious diseases, a solution was needed to help those who must abstain from going out in  public and have no caregiver authorized to go in their place. Maryland dispensaries are offering online ordering and curbside pickup where an employee in a mask and gloves will go out to the customer’s car to check their identification before delivering their order.

Testing remains critical to patient safety

Last year, Maryland dispensaries grossed over $252M through the sale of 33,899 pounds of cannabis flower and over 2.4.million units of infused products. All cannabis products are analyzed for safety and potency by one of just 6 independent medical cannabis testing laboratories in the state. The state’s testing labs are expected to continue operating at full capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep pace with the growing demand for medical cannabis. 

“Just like the rest of the medical cannabis program, it’s business as usual,” remarked Devona Austin, the Business Development Manager at Atlantic Test Labs. Austin recently spoke with BioBuzz about her Anne Arundel County-based testing lab and her passion for patient access and safety. “We haven’t stopped doing our jobs.”

The specialized services that independent testing labs provide represent a potential bottleneck in retail medical cannabis. By the latest official information, independent medical cannabis testing labs analyze tons of consumable products from 17 cultivators and 17 processors for sale in 85 licensed dispensaries.

Pharmaceutical, Cannabis, and Hemp testing is led by Laboratory Director Scott Robertson, MSc. and Associate Laboratory Director Amanda Horodyski at Atlantic Test Labs, Inc. in Millersville, MD.

“We currently quantitate 10 different cannabinoids and 17 different terpenes for potency and then we do a variety of safety tests, moisture content, foreign matter, microbial mycotoxin, water activity, heavy metal screening, residual solvents, pesticides,” Austin explained. 

“We know that cannabis is non-toxic,” said Austin, “but the cultivation and the manufacturing processes can actually introduce dangerous contaminants and those are what we fear can make patients sick. That’s why it’s important that we test cannabis prior to consumption.” 

The independent testing labs function like an extension of the MMCC’s Scientific Support branch which is directed by Farahath Shenaz Dave, a graduate of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “[Dave] is really qualified for her job and she has taken very seriously to ensuring the independence and integrity of all of the medical cannabis labs,” noted Austin.

Patient safety has been paramount for Austin’s lab since their beginning. “I think that what is different about us is we have that pharmaceutical background. We started with pharma in 1999. [In 2017], when cannabis started in Maryland, we were actually one of the first labs to be licensed. We are really dedicated to being transparent and trustworthy when it comes to our results. We strive to show our patients and our clients that, because we’re here to protect the patient.” 

Education as a gateway to patient access

Despite efforts to continue the medical cannabis program throughout the COVID-19 crisis, including the MMCC continuing to process new patient applications and dispensaries providing drive-up and delivery services, patient access is still limited by barriers that predate the outbreak. 

According to Austin, the journey to patient access and safety begins with medical cannabis education for all stakeholders. “I think that education at all levels is important especially because it’s a new program. It’s something that people don’t know anything about and it’s not like there have been public safety announcements on it. So I think education to the consumer is important. The certifying providers and medical professionals in the program and those interacting with the program—I think it’s important for them to be educated. Even the ancillary businesses that pop up—testing, transportation, [waste disposal], [security], etc.—need to be informed about the program and how it works. It’s an ‘everyone’ problem.” 

As essential health care providers and facilities, the MMCC and its licensees have a duty to serve the public during a health crisis and adjust to the uncertain post-COVID-19 market. The Atlantic Test Labs, and the many other providers in Maryland are committed to do their part and work to take all necessary measures to ensure safety and patient access during this challenging time. 

Learn More About Medical Cannabis in Maryland

Patients, caregivers, providers, and other stakeholders may become educated on the policies, regulations, and procedures regarding medical cannabis in Maryland by accessing the MMCC website. 

A clearer understanding of best practices and dosing is expected to emerge as more institutions research medical cannabis. Academic researchers in Maryland have been permitted to purchase medical cannabis from certain licensed dispensaries for legitimate research purposes since house bill HB0017 was signed into law on May 3, 2019.

Persistent knowledge gaps regarding the science, safety, and efficacy of the plant and its accessories will be addressed at the 2020 Cannabis Science Conference-East at the Baltimore Convention Center from June 29th to July 1st. Those interested in attending should check the CSC website for the latest information about the meeting. 

As neighboring jurisdictions like Virginia and Washington, D.C. continue to decriminalize medical cannabis, Marylanders may consider their stance on the subject.

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