MD: Former Anne Arundel Sheriff On Team For Medical Cannabis Business


As Anne Arundel County sheriff, George Johnson thought he had made up his mind on marijuana.

For years, “I was a typical law enforcement guy who enforced all the marijuana laws,” he says.

Now, Johnson, a Democrat who was sheriff from 1994 to 2006, is security adviser to an Anne Arundel-based business that plans to grow the drug for medicinal use.

Forward Gro LLC was among 15 applicants selected by a state commission last month for a preliminary license to grow medical cannabis. Another 15 applicants received preliminary processing licenses.

As Forward Gro prepares for final approval, the story of Johnson’s change of heart is one the company’s founders hope they can replicate among those who still have reservations.

The former sheriff also served as the superintendent of the Maryland Natural Resources Police from 2007 until 2015 and was twice a Democratic candidate for county executive. He said he started to learn about medical cannabis while attending hearings in his role as a member of local law enforcement unions.

At first, Johnson said, “I was on the other side of the fence.”

Then he met Gail Rand, an Annapolis resident and founder of the group Stop the Seizures, which advocates for legalization of medical cannabis to help alleviate the seizures children with epilepsy, like her son Logan, experience.

Through their conversations, “I got a different perspective on what medical marijuana can do for people who have chronic illnesses,” Johnson said. “I made the conscious decision to change my opinion … and then really learned to accept the fact that medical marijuana can be used in a positive way, as long as it’s kept under the strictest controls.”

Johnson will be responsible for implementing those controls as Forward Gro gets off the ground. The business owns three properties in Maryland suitable for cultivation, including 153 acres in Anne Arundel County. It is keeping the exact location a secret for now – for security reasons, Rand said.

In interviews, members of Forward Gro’s team described the meticulous process of building a new business within a newly legal industry. In addition to handling logistics, they’re faced with a second task: explaining their mission to people who hold different views of marijuana.

A vast majority of Americans – 89 percent of those surveyed in a June poll from Quinnipiac University – support allowing cannabis prescribed for medical purposes. Fifty-four percent think it should be legalized altogether, according to the poll.

In Anne Arundel County, however, medical cannabis faced initial opposition from County Executive Steve Schuh, who originally proposed an outright ban on growing or selling the drug in the county. Schuh then supported compromise legislation that imposed tougher restrictions on businesses.

Representations of marijuana in popular culture have perpetuated the image of the stoner – a person befuddled by heavy recreational used of the drug.

Rand, Forward Gro’s chief financial officer, distinguishes the company’s mission from such cultural images by referring to the drug as “cannabis” rather than by slang like “weed” or “pot.”

Debra Kimless, a medical doctor on Forward Gro’s team, said these “derogatory terms” distract from marijuana’s medical benefits.

“Slang words diminish the fact that it is medicine,” Kimless said. “We wouldn’t call opiates ‘smack.'”

Kimless is working with Forward Gro to tailor varieties of cannabis to the needs of patients with different illnesses, including cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

“What we want to do is bridge the gap as best we can by looking at what we know, applying it to a patient and then following along with these patients so we can sort of understand which of those chemicals are working for which types of patients,” she said.

In addition to Kimless, Forward Gro’s advisory board includes CEO Mike McCarthy and President Gary Mangum, who together founded Bell Nursery, the business that provides plants to Home Depot.

Noah Hirsch, a cannabis cultivation adviser, and former Food and Drug Administration MedWatch Director Norman Marks are also part of the team.

Rand said the company plans to grow cannabis in a greenhouse, an energy savings of 70 percent or more compared to an indoor facility.

Forward Gro hopes to move quickly, according to Rand. Once the greenhouse is ready and the cannabis is planted, it will take several months to grow.

“So we’re hoping patients will have access (to medical cannabis) in the second half of 2017, if not earlier,” Rand said.

In the meantime, she said, “we want to educate physicians, patients and politicians so that they understand the science behind what we’re doing.”

“I know this is somewhat, in some people’s eyes, a culture shock to allow this to take place,” said Johnson. “But surprisingly there are just as many people who are out there who understand that medical marijuana is something that we need to take a look at and embrace it to a point that people who are suffering medical conditions can benefit from it.”

“Just like any other things, it’s going to take a time period of people getting used to (it) taking place,” he said.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Former Anne Arundel Sheriff On Team For Medical Cannabis Business
Author: Amanda Yeager
Contact: 410-268-5000
Photo Credit: Joshua McKerrow
Website: Capital Gazette