MD: County Patients Finding Relief With Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Jacob Owens

Tucked into the rolling farm fields of Warwick is likely Maryland’s largest medical marijuana grow facility, where some 100,000 plants bask in the sunshine under a state-of-the-art greenhouse.

This is SunMed Growers LLC, the vision of Jake Van Wingerden, a third generation greenhouse grower who started Tidal Creek Growers in Earleville in 2002.

But before anyone get the wrong idea, this grow house isn’t filled with tie-dye T-shirts and reggae music. It feels more like a laboratory inside Fort Knox, surrounded by razor wire, dozens of security cameras, armed security guards and keycard-controlled locks.

Yet all of the sophisticated technology being used at SunMed is just a few months old, as the Warwick operation received its state license in August and planted its first crop on Nov. 1.

SunMed is a family affair with Van Wingerden’s younger brother, Chris, moving from Colorado to help set up the facility and now serving as general manager. The grow facility currently employs 16 people, but Van Wingerden said he expected that number to grow to 20 as the workload increases.

Up to 1,000 plants are currently planted every two weeks at SunMed, with the grow period set at 16 weeks. Harvests of around 100 plants daily yield 25 to 50 pounds of medical marijuana. Finished products are sold to all licensed processors and dispensaries in the state, Van Wingerden said.

Anyone worried about diversion should rest assured that Maryland has instituted a robust control mechanism through its use of the Metrc tracking system, which is already in use in Colorado and California, among other states, Van Wingerden noted.

“It’s a bit like watching your package on Fedex tracking, where you see all the stops that it makes along the way,” he explained.

As soon as a plant is 8 inches tall, a unique radio frequency identification (RFID) tag is attached to it that follows it all the way to the consumer, Van Wingerden said. Algorithms approved by the state track a plant’s weight through the drying process to ensure that none of the drug is being diverted.

“As say 5 pounds of the marijuana is dried, it probably loses about 4 pounds of water weight,” Van Wingerden said. “The state tracks all of that info and watches the average yields to ensure consistency.”

Included in that tracking process is nearly weekly quality testing by the state of the marijuana crop, not only for potency of its active ingredients THC and CBD, but also for any potential contaminants or pesticides that would be used in the growing process. The cost of the roughly $1,000 tests is borne by the grower.

“At the outset, we had to analyze all of our processes to make sure we don’t exceed any of the quality control limits,” Van Wingerden said. “They’re testing to keep the industry honest … A lot of these products are what you would spray on petunias to keep thrips and disease off, but you’re not eating petunias.”

The results of those tests are included in the tracking system, and labeling on store-bought medical marijuana would allow a prescriber to pull up them up for any interested patient, Van Wingerden said, noting that SunMed also includes its phone number and license number on all products as an additional safeguard.

“If someone has an adverse reaction, they can call poison control and give them my license number and the lot number. Within 15 minutes I can issue a recall from all products in that lot,” he said.

SunMed is currently growing 40 different varieties of marijuana strains, including sativa, which is thought to be more cerebrally focused; indica, which has more sedative effects; and hybrids, which included some of each of the parent strains. So far, Van Wingerden said SunMed’s product has been well-received.

“The market just started in December with two growers and now there’s around a dozen, so we’re starting to see supply and demand level out,” he said, noting that concerns about prices have fallen. “With the system set up as it is, with the number of growers and estimated demand, we’ll be satisfying the needs of the state with reasonable product.”

The addition of seven grower and 13 processor licenses under a bill passed by the General Assembly this year — drafted by the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland to try to increase diversity in marijuana business license holders — will make the marketplace more challenging, conceded Van Wingerden, who also serves as chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, a trade association for growers.

“We didn’t feel the turmoil associated with the selection process last session was good, so I initiated a process last summer and engaged with Delegate (Cheryl) Glenn about a compromise that we could all live with,” he said.

With increased competition on the horizon and a huge financial investment in the SunMed operation, Van Wingerden said that marketing will play a big part of his business’s future success. At the top of that pitch is the facility itself, which uses natural sunlight in the growing process as much as possible, leading to the brand’s tagline, “Medicine Grown by the Sun.”

“Cannabis that is grown inside a warehouse is grown completely artificially, whereas in the greenhouse it’s a natural process. I can bring in sunlight and fresh air,” he said, noting that marijuana is a plant intended to grow outdoors. “People that are consuming this cannabis are probably actively trying to avoid the artificial medicine of pharmaceuticals.”

Getting relief

For the two licensed dispensaries in Cecil County, the business over the first few months has been brisk.

Linda Condon, the registered nurse in charge of Nature’s Care and Wellness in Perryville, hears success stories every day from those who are patients of the dispensary at 4925 Pulaski Highway, Suite A.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Condon said of the stories of patients who have been able to get a good night’s sleep, or get off narcotic painkillers, or have better mobility by using cannabis products prescribed at NCW.

“We have different ways to medicate,” she said, noting there are tinctures, patches, elixirs, tablets and vaping in addition to the smoking of marijuana’s flowered bud. “It’s all based on patient preference. Different methods have a different onset.”

Condon also makes sure each patient is given a journal to monitor progress and to find the correct dosing combination.

“Keeping your journal is very important so when you come back we can help you,” she said.

Shane Mayberry, facilties manager for PharmKent Wellness, the dispensary at 330 E. Pulaski Highway in Elkton, also issues journals to patients.

“A lot of people are just so new to it,” Mayberry said.

Patients are encouraged to record when the marijuana was taken, if other medicines were taken at the same time and what food or beverage was consumed to note any interactions or changes in the way the marijuana worked.

“There’s always the potentiality for interactions,” Mayberry explained.

Like NCW, PharmKent Wellness gets its supplies from one of Maryland’s 15 approved growers.

“Right now we’re in contact with 10,” he said. “We’re trying to get a little bit from everyone.”

One of those who has been helped is Lisamarie Hunter. She’s been a NCW patient since day one. A retired U.S. Army veteran, Hunter told her doctor at Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center that she wanted to try cannabis for her fibromyalgia and other chronic issues.

“They won’t give you any pain meds when you’re on cannabis,” the Perryville resident said.

However, she is OK with that because she’s found success.

“My pain level went from 10-plus to 2,” Hunter said. “It’s really awesome.”

Part of the course of treatment is discovering which product will bring the best relief.

“There are different strains,” she said. “The cannabis plant is very complex.”

Keeping that journal helps the patient learn dosing amounts and frequency.

“I don’t have to medicate every day,” Hunter said. “I am very much in control of my life.”

With medical marijuana, she also is well-rested, the nightmares have stopped and she has less anxiety, Hunter said.

“With the cannabis, you’re not chasing the pain,” she said, explaining that with prescription painkillers she found herself watching the clock for her next dose.

Mayberry reports hearing similar stories from his patients.

“A couple of people have come back and said this was exactly what they’ve been looking for,” he said. “They are getting relief they haven’t seen for quite some time.”

Hunter said she vapes in the morning and uses THC oil at night. She also takes yoga and has acupuncture.

“It’s all part of a natural approach to my health and well-being,” she said.

Although some of his patients had used marijuana recreationally, Mayberry said medical marijuana is grown in controlled conditions and packaged before reaching the dispensaries.

“They can know exactly what they’re getting,” he said, noting that packages are also labeled like any other prescription with the warning that it is only for the person for whom it was prescribed.

NCW is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and only those who have registered with the Maryland Medical Cannabis program can receive the products. While legal under state law, insurance still does not cover the cost of medical marijuana, so patients must pay out of pocket.

Condon said that likely won’t change until the federal government reclassifies marijuana. Despite the easing of cultural attitudes to the drug, it currently still classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I narcotic, or a drug with no medical use and a high potential for abuse, in line with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

As one of the first to register, Hunter said she got her certification quickly. However, Condon said now there is a lag of around 10 days.

“We can help people sign up,” she said, adding she can direct people to doctors who will prescribe medical marijuana.

Once PharmKent Wellness Center has been open for some time he may begin to offer more hours and delivery services, Mayberry said.

“Right now we’re just getting it all under our feet,” he said.

Since Maryland chose to regulate the number of dispensaries and producers by state senatorial district, NCW has reached out to potential customers across the Hatem Bridge in Harford County with help paying the toll.

“Because patients may not live on this side, if they buy the $20 Hatem Bridge commuter pass and are enrolled here as a patient they can bring us their receipt and we will reimburse them,” Condon said.