A New Leaf
Medical marijuana dispensaries are sprouting up all over the Bethesda area. Who’s using them—and will full legalization be next?
It was late, well after midnight. Daniel Goldberg, a 28-year-old sous-chef at a District restaurant, was exhausted after working a long shift. But he was almost home. Eight-tenths of a mile from his parents’ cozy redbrick house east of Olney, Daniel glimpsed a flash of something—maybe headlights—through the windshield of his old sedan. He startled. After that, he remembers nothing but the sudden, terrifying realization that he’d lost control of the Oldsmobile and was careening off New Hampshire Avenue. A police report dated June 23, 2012, fills in some of the gaps: Goldberg’s car struck a utility pole, spun across the lawn of a United Methodist church and hit a tree. He was ejected through the rear window.
Just down the road, his parents, Andy and Sharon Goldberg, were awakened by the sound of sirens.
The next thing Daniel Goldberg remembers is waking up in the intensive care unit at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. His parents were at his bedside. The first words they remember him saying were, “I’ve got to get to work.” They cried. Goldberg had been in a medically induced coma for a month. He’d been so seriously injured in the accident and had lost so much blood that he had died twice, once on the operating table, when he stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating and his blood pressure tanked. One of those times, his parents recall, it took doctors 10 minutes to bring him back—Lazarus-like. His pelvis was crushed. His right leg and left arm were mangled. He was held together with metal plates and rods. He would never again be sturdy enough to work as a restaurant chef. It was unclear if he’d be able to walk.
Goldberg, now 34, walks with two canes to steady himself. On a recent afternoon in his parents’ sunny living room he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the word Affliction. He lifted the shirt to reveal scars that run along his spine and down his buttocks. The scars are as epic as his story. In just six years, he’s lived some of the significant medical trends of the age: the ability of expert trauma surgeons to save critically injured patients, the rise of prescription opioids that dull pain but can ruin lives, and the dawning of legalized medical marijuana.
Goldberg is one of more than 38,000 people in Maryland—at least 8,000 of them in Montgomery County—who are certified by the state to buy medical cannabis legally. As of late August, about another 16,000 had applied to purchase medical cannabis through the state-regulated program and were awaiting approval or denial. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission fields between 250 and 300 new applications daily from would-be medical marijuana patients.
Across Montgomery County, more than a dozen state-regulated dispensaries are selling medical cannabis to approved patients. The first, Potomac Holistics, opened on Dec. 1, 2017, on the second floor of a modest office complex near Darnestown Road in Rockville. One of the newest cannabis dispensaries in the county is Health for Life Bethesda, which opened Aug. 27 on Fairmont Avenue. With its wood-lined walls and minimalist design aesthetic, Health for Life looks like an upscale beauty spa. Unlike a spa, it has a high-security vault where its merchandise is locked away at closing time. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has approved the opening in the near future of several more dispensaries in the county.
In the 11 months since the first medical cannabis dispensaries opened in Maryland they have sold more than $46 million worth of medical marijuana statewide, state records show.
The federal government still considers the sale or possession of marijuana illegal. It classifies marijuana, just like heroin and methamphetamine, as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefit. Thus, institutions that receive federal funding aren’t free to conduct the large, randomized placebo-controlled trials that might prove or disprove the efficacy of marijuana to treat a broad array of ailments.
Doctors are whipsawed between the federal laws and the real-life stakes for patients joining Maryland’s new medicinal cannabis program. Members of The Maryland State Medical Society, for example, remain so divided on medicinal cannabis that the organization is unable to adopt a formal position on the issue, CEO Gene M. Ransom III says. Instead, the society provides information on laws and regulations to doctors who choose to register with the state to assess patients who want medical cannabis.
Unless the federal government clears the way for substantive research into the efficacy of medical cannabis, Dr. Carolyn O’Conor, a Rockville family medicine physician, won’t be helping her patients obtain it. “I think it’s a perversion of medical care,” says O’Conor, president of the Montgomery County Medical Society. “I believe in evidence-based medical care, and there is next to no evidence on this.”
Dr. Brent Berger, 59, a Bethesda internist, has no quarrel with a medical doctor certifying patients to receive medical cannabis—as long as their ailments fall within the scope of the physician’s expertise. Berger was stunned recently when a dentist certified two of the internist’s patients to receive medical cannabis for ailments unrelated to dentistry. “I wouldn’t want anybody to come to me for a root canal,” Berger says. Currently, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission permits doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists and podiatrists who registered with the commission to certify patients to receive medical cannabis. “It is a new system,” Berger says. “It’s got its kinks that need to be worked out.”
For many patients, however, medical marijuana has already become an indispensable lifeline. “This is the first time since the accident that there is a ray of light at the end of the painkiller tunnel,” Goldberg says. “It’s a big deal for me to talk about this publicly, and maybe help someone else, because it’s made such a difference for me.”