A New Leaf
Medical marijuana dispensaries are sprouting up all over the Bethesda area. Who’s using them—and will full legalization be next?
In 2016, she and her husband visited friends in Colorado. Marijuana was already legal there and easily available; her friends urged her to find out if it relieved her pain. Walking into a store that sold pot, “I couldn’t believe what I was doing,” Jessup recalls. “I have always been taught that marijuana was a bad thing. I told the man who waited on me that I didn’t want to be high, I didn’t want to feel goofy, I just wanted my pain to go away.” Her hands were so crippled there was no way she could roll a joint. The salesman suggested she buy a prerolled joint made with a strain of cannabis that had a low percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that gives users the feeling of being high. Even so, he warned her to take just one or two puffs.
Embarrassed by the experiment she was undertaking, she went into the woods to light up. “Within one to two minutes I felt the pain go away,” she recalls. “I cried. I told my friend that it was the first pain-free day I’d had in a decade. That night I had my first peaceful sleep that I could remember. I was used to waking my husband up all the time, rolling over and crying out because I hurt.”
Relief was temporary. Transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime—and Jessup wasn’t about to break the law. She returned to Maryland empty-handed and continued taking her prescription arthritis drugs.
In May, Jessup was sitting in her dining room. “All of a sudden the side of my face went numb and I was falling off the chair,” she says. “I had no strength.” A neurologist later told her that event might have been a ministroke and a warning that she was at risk for a larger one. Stroke was a listed possible side effect of the long-term use of at least one of the prescription drugs she was taking; her primary care physician told her to stop taking it, she says.
Now she doesn’t have to take it. She registered with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, was certified, and within three weeks was in a dispensary making her first purchases. “I get up in [the] morning and the first thing I do is I take one puff of a vape pen,” Jessup says. The pen is filled with cannabidiol or CBD oil—a chemical compound in marijuana plants that’s touted to have many health benefits—combined with a small amount of THC. “About 30 seconds later the pain is gone,” Jessup says. Every six hours she takes a pill containing a microdose of CBD combined with a lesser amount of THC.
“I do yard work now,” she says. “I mow the lawn. I do everything I did before I got arthritis. I got my life back. My husband has the bride of his youth back. I am not that grumpy old lady anymore, shuffling in the house.”
Jessup has started writing to elected officials, saying they will not get her vote or her donations unless they push for federal reforms on medical cannabis. She’s a registered Republican. She puts health and happiness above party. “I don’t want to sound like the next Billy Graham, except I’m preaching the gospel of weed,” she quips. “I think it’s just important that people know the truth.” She thinks it’s absurd that the federal government allows pharmaceutical companies and doctors to “hand out opioids like they are Tic Tacs” while stymieing research into medical cannabis. She thinks it’s absurd that grandparents who use medical cannabis for arthritis pain can’t cross state lines with it to visit grandkids, and that children whose seizures are kept at bay by medical cannabis can’t get on a plane with it to visit Disney.
Inside the secure front vestibule of Potomac Holistics one recent afternoon, a cheerful gatekeeper greeted each dispensary customer. She signed them in, asked for a photo ID and examined their state-issued patient identification number. Then the gatekeeper logged into a state database to verify that the customer hadn’t already purchased their monthly allotment of cannabis, which is typically 120 grams of flower or 36 grams of THC.
The cap is designed, in part, to prevent people from buying larger amounts of cannabis to resell illegally. First-time customers fill out a form attesting that they won’t resell or cross state lines with cannabis products they buy here. If a customer’s paperwork is in order, the gatekeeper ushers them into a quiet waiting area that has a Zen vibe: a trickling Buddha fountain, stacks of pot-themed magazines and televised instructions on cooking with cannabis. When a sales associate is available, the customer is ushered into the dispensary, where the walls are lined with locked glass cases filled with hundreds of products. Flower from marijuana strains with names like Captains Cake, Chem Dog, G Spot and Blue Cheese typically range from $17 to $55 for one-eighth of an ounce. There are also creams to be rubbed onto aching joints, and a tincture named Dreamy that’s reputed to help people sleep.
Maryland only allows medical cannabis dispensaries to sell products that are grown and processed in the state by approved and regulated facilities. Most dispensaries stock a wide array of cannabis products: tablets, tinctures, patches, oil-filled vape pens, lotions and multiple strains of flower to smoke. Some products are potent; they contain high concentrations of THC. Others contain little or no THC and are primarily composed of the nonpsychoactive CBD oil.
William Askinazi, 60, owns the dispensary with two partners, he says. He saw the potential of medicinal cannabis years ago, when a prescription drug based on a synthetic component of marijuana resolved his son’s serious gastrointestinal problems. Askinazi, a corporate lawyer, former assistant secretary for Maryland’s Department of Commerce and local Republican activist, mortgaged his home and devoted years to opening the dispensary. “It’s the most heavily regulated industry that I have ever been involved in,” he says. “You have to spend a lot of time to do it right.”
Entrepreneurs who’ve opened medical cannabis dispensaries in Maryland are pioneers, and many say they are reminded of that daily. Even in liberal Montgomery County, some dispensary owners or operators say it was difficult to find landlords willing to rent commercial space to them.
“Finding space was definitely a challenge, and convincing people that this would not be some hotbed of criminal activity,” says Rebecca Brown, who helped open the RISE Bethesda dispensary in the Wildwood Medical Center after other landlords turned her down. “This is as quiet as a CVS.”
Finding a bank willing to open a business account for a cannabis dispensary is even tougher. Banks are federally regulated, and selling marijuana—while legal in Maryland through its regulated medical cannabis program—is still a federal crime. For that reason, the few banks willing to do business with cannabis dispensaries in Maryland ask them not to publicize it, owners say.
Warren Lemley, 33, grew up in Rockville, graduated from Thomas S. Wootton High School, and is now a part owner of Peake ReLeaf. The medical cannabis dispensary opened in Rockville in May.
Opening Peake ReLeaf cost more than $1 million, Lemley says. Some upfront expenses aren’t obvious to the casual observer, like a 48-hour battery backup to keep the security system running during power outages, humidity-controlled storage to keep marijuana buds at peak freshness, and an industrial-size carbon filter to keep the smell of cannabis from wafting through the neighborhood. Lemley and his initial partners took on additional investors.
Before he moved home to Maryland to open the dispensary, Lemley managed a restaurant in West Virginia. “Working in the restaurant industry, the highlight of my day would be helping someone have a great anniversary or birthday celebration,” he says. Now he feels like he’s improving the quality of people’s lives more fundamentally. “That’s something that brings me a tremendous amount of joy. ”
The cost of being a pioneer, however, isn’t just counted in dollars and regulatory red tape. Lemley and his wife have two daughters. The oldest is 13 and has had years of instruction in public schools about the dangers of drugs, including marijuana. “We took it upon ourselves to educate her about medical cannabis [and] why it was important for medical cannabis to be available,” Lemley says. “I don’t like saying it, but we didn’t want her to think that quote-unquote Daddy was a drug dealer.”