Maryland 3.0: As Medical Cannabis Nears, Bill could boost Minorities’ Stake

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After a four-year wait to provide medical cannabis to patients, the drug could be available to Marylanders as early as this month, according to industry stakeholders.

“I think we could see product in November, with increase in December and a steady flow from all operators in the new year,” said Wendy Bronfein, the marketing director for Curio Wellness, a company in Lutherville, Maryland, awarded two licenses to cultivate and process medical marijuana.

However, racial diversity in the state’s medical marijuana industry is wanting, and some lawmakers said they are planning to introduce a bill early next session to grant licenses to African-American business owners.

A disparity study ordered by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in April and due in December focuses on whether minorities who sought a license in the cannabis industry were at a disadvantage.

The study was prompted after the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus raised concerns about the lack of African-American involvement in the industry.

Of the 321 business owners granted preliminary licenses to grow, distribute or process the drug, 208 were white men or women and the remaining 113 identified as a member of a minority group or as multiracial. Of these, 55 — about 17 percent — were black men and women, according to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

“It’s shameful in a state like Maryland where we have one-third of the population of the state, one-third is African American,” said Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

As the General Assembly’s January session approaches, members of the Black Caucus told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service they have begun drafting a bill that would award 10 new licenses for growers and processors specifically targeted at African-Americans interested in the industry.

They will move forward with their legislation regardless of the outcome of a Hogan’s disparity study, Glenn said.

“I will bank on it that we’ll come away from the table with five new licenses for growers and five new licenses for processors that will be awarded based on the results of the disparity study. What does that mean? That means these licenses will go to, in large part, African Americans,” said Glenn.

A weighted scoring system will give businesses an advantage of being awarded a particular license if they have a certain percentage of African-American ownership, Glenn said.

A “compassionate use fund” will be part of the legislation in order to make medical marijuana affordable for patients in Maryland. The fund will be financed based on the fees that licensees in the industry must pay, Glenn said.

“Marijuana is still an illegal drug, according to the federal government. Your insurance will not pay for marijuana even though it is medical marijuana. So what does that mean? That means it becomes a rich man’s struggle. We’re not gonna have that,” said Glenn, whose mother died of cancer and is the commission’s namesake.

Marylanders who are insured through the state’s Medicare and Medicaid programs will not be covered for medical cannabis, said Brittany Fowler, spokeswoman for the Maryland health department.

The legislation has been numbered Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 2, and should gain initial approval as an emergency bill during a joint hearing by the House and the Senate during the first weeks of the session — which is scheduled to start Jan. 10 — Glenn said.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said they intend to use the upcoming election as leverage for the bill.

“Next year is election year … so timing is everything … I am very, very sure that this is going to be taken care of,” Glenn said.

Cannabis companies have said that the drug is likely to be available to patients this month.

ForwardGro Inc., the first licensed medical marijuana grower, successfully passed the state’s cannabis assessment this year, said Darrell Carrington, the medical cannabis director of Greenwill Consulting Group LLC.

Patients will be able to get cannabis in a variety of forms such as lotion, pills and transdermal patches, said Michael Klein, the chief operating officer of Wellness Solutions in Frederick, Maryland.

The industry has been projected to open toward the end of the year, according to Brian Lopez, the chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

“The industry is starting to move forward,” Lopez said late last month. “We hope we are going to have another 20 to 30 dispensaries by the end of the year and at that point we will have an industry that is starting to receive product consistently around the state. But with that we are going to also, I’m sure, see some growing pains.”

Maryland still faces a wide range of challenges as the industry starts up. The commission has not decided how to regulate how dispensaries will serve out-of-state patients, deal with the green waste from the cannabis, or address fraudulent activity within the industry, said Lopez.

“I’m sure we are going to hit road blocks, but we plan to work through them in a very consistent manner and with diligence,” Lopez said.

Maryland is considered to have one of the slowest medical cannabis rollouts in the nation, hampered by several delays that arose during the four-year process since it was legalized.

Stakeholders in the industry have pointed to the lack of funding of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission in its beginning stages, and to lawsuits filed against the commission, as major stumbling blocks.

In 2016, GTI — Green Thumb Industries — a Bethesda, Maryland-based company that was originally awarded pre-approved licenses as a grower, filed a lawsuit against the commission for retracting its licenses in order to create geographical diversity.

The commission, which as of mid-2017 had 10 new members, made the decision to retract the license from GTI after the Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh stated in 2016 that the commission must ensure geographical diversity when choosing applicants.

GTI attempted to work with the Black Caucus to reverse the decision during the 2017 General Assembly session through legislation, which would have awarded them a license, said Delegate Pamela Queen D-Montgomery, financial secretary for the Black Caucus.

The legislation failed in the last 90 minutes of the session and there were no additional medical marijuana growing licenses given to any companies owned by minorities, Queen said.

The Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year asked Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, and Speaker of the House Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to reconvene the General Assembly to Annapolis for a one-day session to pass a law expanding the medical marijuana industry. However, the request was denied.

In another lawsuit against the commission, filed in October 2016 by Alternative Medicine Maryland, a predominately African-American owned business, Judge Barry Williams ruled in May that if he finds that the commission unlawfully disregarded racial diversity during the application process for licenses he reserves the right to revoke the licenses of those who were pre-approved.

This could ultimately shut down the industry, according to John Pica, a lobbyist and attorney representing Alternative Medicine Maryland.

Frosh also had said it would be unlawful to seek racial diversity in the application process without there being a history of racial disparities in the nascent cannabis industry.

“While it is still too soon to say for certain when we can expect a final analysis, we are encouraged and grateful to collaborate with these offices as we pursue this important work,” said Medical Cannabis Commission Executive Director Patrick Jameson, who announced his resignation from the commission on Thursday.

Queen said she thinks that a major issue that negatively affected the industry was the poor funding the commission initially received from the state.

When the panel was created as the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission in 2013, its purpose was to oversee academic medical intuitions in distributing medical marijuana. However, the institutions were unwilling to distribute the drug because it is illegal under federal law.

In 2015, when the commission was recreated as the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission, they were given a greater responsibility to evaluate and certify businesses to grow, process and distribute the drug.

The commission received $140,795 in fiscal year 2015 and $2,540,331 in fiscal year 2017. The increase of funding over time was used to hire more employees, contractual labor, office spaces that can support the growing staff, travel expenses and to pay Towson University for scoring license applications for the industry, according to Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

By Oluwatomike Adeboyejo

 

Maryland Lawmakers weigh Integrating Services to break Poverty Cycle

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To end multi-generational poverty, state and local agencies should integrate services such as early childhood development, temporary cash assistance and mental health programming, a governor-mandated commission told Maryland lawmakers Tuesday.

Two state legislative committees met Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland, to evaluate the benefits of the two-generational approach, which looks at the needs of a family as a whole, rather than viewing children and parents separately. Proponents of this approach consider early childhood development, economic assets, postsecondary and employment pathways and the importance of health and well-being in evaluating the needs of a family.

“This is a process for working toward benefitting whole families,” Sarah Haight, the associate director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, a think tank that studies and advocates for a multi-generational approach to ending poverty, said Tuesday.

With a two-generation approach, for families with young children who have an annual income of $25,000 or less, a $3,000 annual increase throughout the years of early childhood yields a 17 percent increase in adult earnings for those children, according to data from Ascend.

The institute said it has helped 3.5 million families annually in several states by pushing to integrate programs among agencies, including departments of human services and labor.

In 2016, Connecticut approved $3 million in funding to establish pilot programs in six communities across the state, according to Ascend. Colorado and Tennessee are among other states that have coordinated their resources through leadership and rehabilitation programs to benefit low-income families.

“Recent census data shows that the number of Maryland children living in poverty would fill 2,434 school busses,” said Nicholette Smith-Bligen, executive director of family investment within the Maryland Department of Human Services. “That’s saying to us that this program (the two-generation approach) is critical.”

Allegany County, in rural Western Maryland, where 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, has already begun viewing their local systems with a two-generation approach. In the last six months, many agencies and departments in the county have worked together to establish a Head Start center, GED classes and financial education programs.

“It’s not a new program, it’s a change in the way we deliver services,” Courtney Thomas-Winterberg, the director of Allegany County Department of Social Services, told the committee members.

Thomas-Winterberg read out loud letters from several families within the county who have benefited from integrating services in Allegany County.

“No one was telling me what to do for the first time,” Thomas-Winterberg said one parent wrote. “They were actually asking me what I wanted to do.”

The county is creating a needs-based intake assessment that will connect a low-income family with the specific agency or agencies required for their circumstances. This opportunity allows families to have one set plan moving forward with intentionally linked services, which the commission hopes to replicate statewide.

“I think it’s absolutely a step forward,” Smith-Bligen told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “I think that the committee seemed very interested in our work and what it could look like in the future and how they can help, so I think this is just the beginning.”

The commission is scheduled to release an interim report on or before Dec. 31, as required by Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order, signed in March.

By Jess Feldman

State Slashes Oyster Restoration Acreage Goal

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The state of Maryland has decided to reduce the large-scale oyster restoration project goal in the Little Choptank River after boaters ran aground at another sanctuary and some of the man-made reefs there had to be rebuilt.

The sanctuaries are among five planned to be built as part of a federal-state agreement to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The project, which grows and plants oysters on man-made beds in protected waterways, has been touted by environmentalists and generally opposed by watermen. Numerous agencies have agreed to a longterm goal of growing oysters on at least 50 percent of restorable oyster habitat.

The habitat goal for the Little Choptank River sanctuary has been cut by 118 acres — about one-fourth of the original target.

This means there will be roughly 19.5 million fewer oysters at this site alone — enough to filter up to 1.03 billion liters of water per day.

Oysters’ capacity to filter water can vary widely depending on temperature, salinity and other factors, according to Matthew Gray, an assistant professor specializing in oyster feeding habits at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

A construction error in Harris Creek — Maryland’s first large-scale oyster restoration site — caused damage to multiple boats, as vessels grounded or scraped against stone-based reefs that did not meet five feet of navigational clearance, officials said.

Skeptical of oyster restoration from the start, watermen have complained of trotlines getting stuck in new stone river bottoms and boats being damaged by oyster reef “high spots” in Harris Creek. A trotline is a long, heavy fishing line with short, baited lines suspended from it. They are often used to catch blue crabs in Maryland.

Watermen depend on their boats to earn a living. No boat means no fishing. No fishing means no income.

The extent of damage to boats as a result of Harris Creek groundings varied widely, said Jeff Harris, a Tilghman Island waterman. Even a relatively insignificant repair requires taking the boat out of the water.

“You could lose maybe three days of work,” he said.

The state’s natural resources agency cited navigational risks for boaters and the inconvenience to trotlining in its decision to curb construction in shallower spots in its second oyster sanctuary — the Little Choptank — going forward, according to Chris Judy, Maryland Department of Natural Resources shellfish division director.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District was tasked with designing the reefs in Harris Creek and hired contractor Argo Systems LLC, based in Hanover, Maryland, to build them.

But after stone-reef construction in Harris Creek in 2015, the location was left with “high spots,” according to Angie Sowers, oyster restoration study manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District.

Argo Systems could not be reached after repeated requests for comment.

The “high spots” in Harris Creek have since been leveled to meet specifications determined by the oyster recovery partners — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

But for the Little Choptank, 118 fewer acres may have greater implications.

The oyster recovery partners finished planting 350 acres in Harris Creek in 2015, and it has been touted as the largest oyster restoration in the world. The Little Choptank project was scheduled to overtake Harris Creek, with 440 acres of river bottom to be covered with restored reef by late 2018.

In 2009, then-President Barack Obama signed the The Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order, setting a goal of restoring 20 tributaries by 2025.

The goal was amended by the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which set out to restore oyster populations in 10 tributaries — five in Maryland and five in Virginia — by 2025, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under the amended agreement, the oyster restoration partners agreed to restore 50 to 100 percent of “currently restorable oyster habitat” in each tributary, according to a 2011 Oyster Metrics Workgroup report. Restorable habitat has hard riverbottom, suitable for man-made reefs, which keep the bivalves from sinking into sediment and dying.

“In order to qualify as successfully restored,” said Stephanie Westby, oyster coordinator at NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, at least 50 percent of the tributary’s suitable habitat must be restored.

The Little Choptank had 685 restorable acres at the project’s onset, Judy said. The original goal was to restore 64 percent of that restorable habitat — a total of 440 acres. Now Maryland has pared back the target.

Though the state is removing the shallower areas from the Little Choptank’s restoration plan, Judy said, “there is a commitment to make sure it’s 50 percent and we will do that.”

The Little Choptank’s new, 50-percent target is 342.5 acres.

“We’re disappointed,” Allison Colden, fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “The state is doing the bare minimum to meet restoration standards and setting a bad precedent for future oyster restoration in Maryland.”

Judy maintained that the state’s only obligation is to restore at least 50 percent and that the department will do that.

At the new 342.5-acre target, 390 million fewer spat — baby oysters — will be planted in the Little Choptank.

The mortality rate of spat developed at the state’s Horn Point Hatchery is regularly 90 percent or higher once they are released into river, Judy said. The spat are highly vulnerable because of their small size, he added.

At a 95 percent mortality rate, 390 million spat translates to 19.5 million adult oysters.

No more stone

The amended version of the Little Choptank restoration also aims to avoid using stone and other substrate foundations for reef construction, a practice the watermen community has opposed from the project’s inception.

Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “didn’t do their job. They had criteria they were supposed to go about.”

“They put so many stones in there that it has disturbed the places where (watermen) crabbed at,” Brown said. “When you’re running a trotline down … you have a long line with bait on it and it’ll get hung underneath the stones and your line can’t come up.”

Harris, who took a 15-minute break from working on the water to speak with Capital News Service Oct. 20, said the oyster recovery partners “ruined Harris Creek for trotlining.”

He also pointed out that the lines actually shift with the tides, increasing the likelihood of the baited-lines getting snagged.

Brown added: “I don’t wanna see ‘em use no more stone, anywhere.”

The decision to avoid stone and substrate-based reefs raises concerns about the filtering potential of the oyster restoration.

Stone-based oyster reefs in Harris Creek produced an oyster density about four times greater per square meter than mixed-shell based reefs, according to NOAA’s 2016 Oyster Reef Monitoring Report.

“If you’re constructing reefs … for the oysters’ sake, then that points to the stone being a very promising material,” Westby said.

She added: “the science we have indicates” that oysters seem to do better on stone.

Constructing the remaining reefs exclusively from shell magnifies the shortage of recycled shell.

Shell is acquired from restaurants, which can recycle oyster and clam shells, or by purchasing out-of-state shells.

The Department of Natural Resources is also seeking a permit to dredge buried oyster shells from waterways, Judy said. “Every possible option is being pursued, whether it’s in-state or out-of-state.”

As it stands, the Little Choptank is approximately 63 acres shy of reaching the new 342.5-acre goal, Judy said.

In other words, the oyster recovery partners have completed more than 80 percent of that project with various reef-bases, including stone and substrate. The remainder will be built with a shell base.

In-the-water work in the Little Choptank began in 2014 and is expected to be completed mid-summer 2018. But that may take up to a year longer than expected “because you have to accumulate the shell to complete the project,” Judy said.

By Alex Mann

Maryland Touts new Generic Drug Price-Gouging Law

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Following Maryland’s recent efforts as the first state to enact a law that protects consumers from generic prescription drug price-gouging, local leaders and health care advocates on Tuesday highlighted the benefits of the legislation and urged Marylanders to share their personal stories about drug affordability.

The law went into effect Oct. 1 and restricts manufacturers of generic and off-patent prescription drugs from price gouging, or the “excessive and not justified” increase in the cost of a drug, according to a state analysis.

In July, the Association for Accessible Medicines, the trade association that represents America’s manufacturers of generic and biosimilar medicines, filed a lawsuit against Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and Dennis Schrader, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, charging that the law was unconstitutional. The association said in July that the law was only protecting high-priced brand name drug companies and punishing lower cost generic alternatives.

In September, a judge rejected portions of the association’s argument and allowed the law to take effect. The association in a statement has said it plans to appeal.

“As a caregiver, prescription drugs are a big part of my life,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker in a press release. Baker on Tuesday explained how the law has personally affected him and his family. His wife was diagnosed with early onset dementia and the cost of her medication had shot up from $100 during his earlier pharmacy visits to $300 in recent visits.
“You think about the fact that I have some of the best insurance as county executive. … I have resources, but what happens to somebody that comes in and can’t afford to pay $300?” Baker said.

Generic medications account for 88 percent of drugs dispensed nationally, and 22 percent of generics studied by the Government Accountability Office experienced an “extraordinary price increase” of 100 percent or greater between 2010 and 2015, according to the office of the Maryland Attorney General.

“I take care of patients, not laws,” Dr. Stephen Rockower, past president of MedChi said Tuesday. “My job is to make sure that patients get better, which means patients taking their medicine, and I can’t do my job when they can’t afford their medicine.”

EpiPens and Naloxone are medications that officials have raised concerns about recently — citing prices that rose sharply from October 2013 to April 2014. Prices of EpiPens had a 508 percent increase in price. Naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdose — an especially important medication amid the nation’s opioid crisis — increased in price by 553 percent, according to the office of the Maryland Attorney General.

“It’s outrageous that companies can jack up prices like this,” Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “This law is a life-saver and we’re confident that the attorney general will continue to succeed in court with this legislation.”

Maryland joined 44 other states on Tuesday in an antitrust investigation of the generic drug industry. They asked a federal court for permission to file a new complaint to increase the number of generic drug manufacturer defendants from six to 16, and drugs at issue from two to 15.

“We have to go after it,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told Capital News Service. “We’ll see the drug companies collapse and take it to trial.”

Supporters of the legislation urged consumers on Tuesday to submit their stories to www.healthcareforall.com/hearmystory, a new webpage created for the public to share how escalating drug prices have hurt them or their families.

“As legislators, one of the ways we were able to fight was to hear the stories of individuals and repeat them in court by talking to people who could not afford the medicine that they needed,” said state Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery). “We need your help to make sure that the legislation works.”

By Georgia Slater

Challenges remain for Musk’s hyperloop in Maryland

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Elon Musk’s East Coast “hyperloop” project still faces technological and regulatory hurdles as Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland’s support for construction of the project last week.

Maryland may have jumped the gun a bit, as a day after the announcement Thursday, Musk tweeted a clarification: “Not ready to do a proper announcement yet, but maybe in a month or so. Maryland has been awesome to work with and just wanted to say thanks.”

This deal, though full of ambition from Hogan and Musk, billionaire inventor, entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX and Tesla Inc., thus far is lacking specifics.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said last week The Boring Co. will start with two 35-mile tubes between Baltimore and Washington. Even if this proposal comes to fruition, the company will have 10.3 miles approved, and approximately 215 miles of approval left to complete Musk’s vision of an underground New York City-Philadelphia-Baltimore-D.C. hyperloop.

In Maryland, Musk will still have to gain approval to tunnel more than twice the amount of miles under the remainder of Route 295 — the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — which is owned by the federal government.

“Approval needed from: Federal DOT; 6 states; 17 counties; numerous cities; hundreds of elected officials. Definitely happening rapidly,” tweeted Yonah Freemark, a transportation expert and doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressing skepticism at Musk’s proposal earlier this year.

Musk’s “hyperloop” idea was first released in a joint Tesla and SpaceX Hyperloop Alpha white paper in August 2013, detailing a reduced-pressure tube system capable of propelling small pods of people at an average speed of 600 mph and a top speed of 760 mph using vacuum pumps and “air bearings” to overcome air resistance.

Touted as an open-source project, Musk has taken a backseat approach to the development of the concept, instead encouraging other companies to take the proposal and make it a commercial reality, with SpaceX building a test track in California and hosting a competition for students and engineers to develop prototype sleds.

Two companies are the most active in making the hyperloop a reality: Virgin Hyperloop One, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group Ltd., and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a crowdsourced company.

This brings us to the question: Who will be building the hyperloop itself?

In the governor’s announcement, the state has given Musk’s The Boring Co. — initially formed to provide a cheaper solution to digging tunnels in an attempt to allay the businessman’s frustration with Los Angeles traffic — permission to dig under the Maryland-owned, 10.3 mile-long section of Maryland Route 295, but has not specified which technology is proposed to be built under the roadway.

Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ proposed concepts are vastly different from each other, with Hyperloop One using Musk’s originally proposed “air skis” and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies using a passive magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology.

However, both companies’ specifications depart from Musk’s original white paper, looking more like high-speed, underground rail and less like a 760 mph above-ground bobsled from the future.

Namely, the originally proposed hyperloop’s top speed of 760 mph and average speed of 600 mph may be more of a pipe dream. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has not produced a working proof-of-concept, while Hyperloop One’s recent proof-of-concept topped out at 192 mph.

In a July Tweet, Musk proposed an East Coast hyperloop resulting in a 29-minute, New York City-to-D.C. commute, as compared to the current five-hour drive or three-hour train ride.

Additionally, it is still not clear what environmental review will be needed for the conditional utility permit the Maryland Department of Transportation has given The Boring Co., and how Musk will plan to gain permission to dig under the remaining two-thirds of Maryland Route 295, currently owned by the National Park Service.

Ultimately, the roadway’s future could include construction of additional toll lanes above Route 295, and tunneling a hyperloop beneath it.

According to Hogan’s September announcement of a $9 billion plan to widen Maryland’s highways, he has already started the process of acquiring Maryland Route 295 from the U.S. Department of the Interior. But the federal agency was non-committal: “No decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting,” according to a brief statement.

By CJ Mitchell
Capital News Service

Centreville’s Russian Compound Gathers Dust While Awaiting Fate

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The soccer field is still trimmed to perfection, but no Russians will be gracing the pitch anytime soon. Nor will they be staying in either of the two Georgian-style mansions or in any of the ten bungalows clustered on the 45-acre waterfront property.

Russia’s luxurious “dacha” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore sits eerily empty and waiting, a casualty of the diplomatic row with the United States that flared after it became clear the Russians meddled extensively with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Shuttered by the Obama administration last December, the spread is perched at the intersection of the Corsica and Chester Rivers in Centreville, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, a town with a population of less than 5,000. In addition to the two large estate houses, it contains ten guest bungalows, a small apartment building, four tennis courts, two pools, a boathouse and a private beach.

Known locally as “Pioneer Point,” the Russian diplomatic compound was originally part of a 1,600-acre property owned by John Jakob Raskob, a wealthy industrialist best known for building the Empire State Building in New York.

Raskob, who once worked as a personal secretary for businessman and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont, made his fortune in the auto industry, helping to manage General Motors from its infancy to one of the world’s most powerful car makers. It was Raskob’s idea to launch a financing arm for the company, a venture that became General Motors Acceptance Corp., or GMAC.

Raskob’s house at Pioneer Point, the 19-room mansion once called “Hartefeld Hall,” is the centerpiece of the current Russian compound, built at some point after the land was acquired in 1925. Raskob constructed a second estate house shortly thereafter for his 13 children, who named it “Mostley Hall,” because it was mostly a long hall of a building.

Raskob passed away in 1950 and the property changed hands a few times until 1972, when what was then the Soviet Union acquired it.

Shortly after the Russians arrived in Centreville, the FBI did too.

“In the early days, they were the subject of enormous curiosity by the FBI,” Stephen Wilson, president of Queen Anne County’s Board of Commissioners, told Capital News Service. He lives across the river from Pioneer Point.

“The FBI used to send people down here with binoculars, who would stare across the river, as if there was something to be learned about Russians sitting on a beach,” Wilson recalled.

According to Wilson, one idea floated by the feds was to watch the Russians via submarine, a plan Wilson described as “comic” because the Corsica River is only about 10 feet deep.

However, the U.S. government eventually found a way to keep a closer eye on the compound. A property that borders it is still registered to the State Department, according to tax records, which put the value of the Russian spread at close to $9 million.

Judging from how little the Russians interacted with the locals over the years, they likely had a sense they were being watched.

“I would say for the most part they stayed to themselves,” said Joseph Connor, whose family has owned the property a few doors down from the compound for longer than the Russians have occupied it. “You didn’t see them unless they walked out.”

However, locals were occasionally invited over for parties. Connor said he went a few times and that the food was good, the company was likewise, and the vodka flowed freely.

Now that the Russians are gone, local feelings are mixed.

“You had two different reactions from the community when it was closed down,” said Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Gary Hofmann, who visited the compound once as part of an official invite to a group of elected officials. “You had a lot of people saying ‘Wow, I never knew that (compound) was there.’ And then you had people who were sorry to see some of the folks who they met in the past leave the compound.”

As for the property itself, Hofmann said: “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. There were no secret operatives walking around. It wasn’t like (there were) these covert tunnels we could find.”

Whether the Russians were using the property for work, play or both, it doesn’t appear Pioneer Point will welcome back its owners anytime soon.

In August, under threat of a veto override from Congress, President Donald Trump signed a new foreign sanctions bill that was partially authored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland. In it, the president’s ability to return diplomatic property in Maryland and elsewhere was made subject to congressional review.

After signing the bill, which included measures against North Korea and Iran as well as Russia, Trump called the legislation “significantly flawed.”

“We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries (U.S. and Russia) on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary,” Trump added.

Earlier this month, Cardin accused the Trump administration of not enforcing the sanctions outlined in the bill, which he tied to the fate of the Centreville property.

“At this time, the senator (Cardin) believes there is no scenario in which the compounds should be returned to the Russians,” Sean Bartlett, the Democratic spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Capital News Service. “He does not believe they have been held accountable for their attack on our election. Despite Congress’ strong sanctions bill, the president has yet to begin enforcing it.”

Maintaining the 45-acre spread now falls to the State Department, which seized the compound under authority of the Foreign Missions Act. The legislation gives the secretary of state wide latitude over diplomatic facilities in order “to protect the interests of the United States.”

“We seek better relations with Russia, as the president and Secretary (Rex Tillerson) have said time and again,” said a State Department official authorized only to speak on background. “But we will also be clear-eyed in our engagement with Russia.”

In response to the closing of the Maryland compound and one in Long Island, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the United States in July to reduce its diplomatic footprint in Russia by 755 people.

When asked on state-run Russian TV why he did it, Putin said: “Because the American side undertook the unprovoked, which is a very important, step in the deterioration of Russian-American relations…”

The U.S. intelligence community had a decidedly different assessment.

A report from the director of national intelligence in January stated: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”

The Obama executive order that directed the State Department to shutter the Maryland and Long Island compounds in December 2016 said they were “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes…”

Since then, three more Russian diplomatic facilities have been ordered shut by the State Department, including a consulate in San Francisco and annexes in New York and Washington.

How long Pioneer Point remains closed is anyone’s guess, but there’s a chance it won’t remain abandoned for long. The Foreign Missions Act allows for a diplomatic property to be sold by the State Department after it has been vacated for a year.

The catch is the Russians would get the money.

By J.F. MEILS

Md. Medical society asks hospitals to review opioid doses

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The Maryland State Medical Society is taking action amidst the nation’s opioid crisis and urging hospitals and physicians in the state to decrease the automated controlled-substance standing orders and to prescribe a minimum amount of opioids necessary.

This epidemic is gathering attention in Maryland — Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency March 1 and committed an additional $50 million over five years to help with prevention.

The number of deaths due to prescription opioids decreased slightly — from 218 to 211— in the first half of this year over the same time period last year, Jan 1. To June 30, according to state health department data released Tuesday.

But the increase in all opioid-related deaths recent years has been sharp: From 2014 to 2017, the number of opioid-related deaths reported in Maryland between Jan. 1 and March 31 more than doubled — taking the death toll up to 473 from 226 three years earlier, according to state health department data.

In response to this crisis, the society, known as MedChi, created an Opioid Task Force to “educate Maryland physicians on safe opioid prescribing practices, how to recognize risk factors, and when to recommend alternative, scientifically-based evidence-based non-opioid treatments,” according to a release earlier this month.

Over the last decade and a half, the amount of opioids prescribed in the United States has risen sharply.

The amount of opioids prescribed per person more than tripled from 1999 to 2015, when the volume of prescriptions reached enough for every American to be medicated for three weeks straight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem may have began in the 1990s when physicians received messages saying they were undertreating pain, said MedChi President Dr. Gary Pushkin.

The “inadequate treatment of pain” was the subject of many policy efforts in the 1990s and among these were the “increased use of opioids for acute pain and the use of long-term opioid therapy for patients with chronic pain,” according to a 2016 paper in the
American Journal of Law and Medicine.

“Doctors do have a role in the whole opioid problem, but I don’t think we are the bad guys that we are painted out to be … a majority of doctors want to do the right thing,” added Pushkin.

Now with the ongoing epidemic and continual increase in opioid prescriptions, MedChi is seeking out these smaller changes with the hopes of a larger impact.

The group is asking that physicians and hospitals review the automated controlled substance “standing orders” that are in the electronic health record systems.

These systems may be creating these standing orders automatically as the recommended dosages — even when lower dosages would be sufficient, Pushkin said.

With this initiative, MedChi is asking that if opioids are being prescribed, hospitals and physicians do not solely rely on auto-populated dosages, and instead they decide which dosage, preferably one that is more minimal, is actually necessary for the pain being treated, explained MedChi CEO Gene Ransom.

Letters have been sent to Maryland hospitals and physicians, according to Pushkin, suggesting that either, “(1) the physicians’ standing orders be reduced to the minimum dosage and quantities necessary or (2) that practices remove any automated dosage and quantity in the …ordering system.”

Ransom said MedChi has received positive responses from hospitals and physicians, and some have begun looking into enacting these changes. Many of them were appreciative that more is being done to try and solve this opioid problem, he added.

“We are very much in line with MedChi’s efforts to reduce standing orders and we know that our efforts can’t just stop there. There are many more measures we have to take on a wider basis for this issue,” Nicole Stallings, Maryland Hospital Association vice president of policy and data analytics told Capital News Service.

The association has been trying to tackle the epidemic for years — in 2015 the group created a set of opioid prescribing guidelines, which included altering standard orders, and 100 percent of Maryland hospital emergency departments signed on to using these guidelines, Stallings added.

Prescribing opioids for too many days and at too high a dose can create a problem, according to the CDC.

Even at low doses, taking an opioid for more than three months can increase the risk of addiction by 15 times, the CDC reported.

A solution may be prescribing for fewer days; for acute pain, prescriptions for three days or fewer is often enough, and more than seven days is rarely needed, according to the CDC.

“This small adjustment could help prevent patients from receiving a higher dosage or quantity than necessary, and may prevent diversion (giving drugs to other people) or other problems,” said Pushkin.

Additionally, many of these opioid prescriptions go unused and are improperly stored in the home, according to a 2017 Johns Hopkins Medicine study.

Dr. Mark Bick, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care at Hopkins, spearheaded the study and found that 67 to 92 percent of a total of 810 patients did not use their entire opioid prescription, but still held onto them, increasing the risk of misuse.

“Our task force continues to work on solutions to this problem and we are going to keep working on it and are open to more ideas to how this can work better. It’s a common sense solution….If we can reduce just a small number (of deaths) it’s worth it,” said Ransom.

By Georgia Slater
Capital News Service

Maryland a battleground state in fight against transgender military ban

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As legislative and court battles rage over the question of whether transgender people are fit to serve in the military, two service members with ties to Maryland are at the heart of the fight.

Regan Kibby, a student at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brock Stone, stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, are plaintiffs in two of the cases working their way through federal court.

After the July announcement by President Donald Trump that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity, transgender individuals currently serving as well as prospective service members are left in limbo while the Department of Defense reviews the policy.

“When I came out as transgender I was relying on formal policies by the Navy and the secretary of defense that service members could no longer be separated or dismissed for being transgender,” Kibby said in a declaration filed in Doe v. Trump in Washington, D.C. against the ban.

Kibby, 19, is a student double-majoring in English and history at the Naval Academy and one of several plaintiffs involved in the suit. His goal upon graduation and receipt of his commission is to serve as a surface warfare officer on a naval ship.

After the 2015 announcement by the Department of Defense that soldiers could no longer be discharged based on gender, Kibby began to allow himself to explore his own identity. With the support of commanding officers, Kibby came out as transgender and began developing a treatment plan and medical leave of absence in order to transition with support of the academy.

Now, even completing his education is uncertain due to the ban.

“I have not been able to obtain any assurances from my chain of command about my return to the academy or my future military service,” Kibby said in the declaration. “They have been silent because they have not known how the previously announced policies will change.”

When Kibby saw the president’s tweets announcing the ban on transgender service, he said he was “devastated.”

“The entire future I had planned for myself was crumbling around me,” said Kibby. “To be told that you are less than, that you are not worthy, is a terrible feeling.”

Maryland joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia last week to file a joint amicus brief in support of Kibby and the plaintiffs involved in Doe v. Trump. It is one of three cases filed around the country seeking to block the implementation of the ban.

“The attorneys general strongly support the rights of transgender people to live with dignity, to be free from discrimination, and to participate fully and equally in all aspects of civic life, and argue that these interests are all best served by allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military,” the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a press release.

The friend-of-the-court brief argues that the proposed service ban is unconstitutional and interferes especially with the readiness of the National Guard, which operates as a hybrid blend of state and federal service members.

The ACLU of Maryland filed a separate lawsuit, Stone v. Trump, on behalf of six transgender service members in the United States District Court of Maryland on Aug. 28.

Stone, a resident of Anne Arundel County in Maryland, is the lead plaintiff in the case.

Stone is stationed as a computer analyst at Fort Meade, said Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project.

“Brock Stone has an incredibly story, as do all our plaintiffs,” Block said. “A lot of these folks, including Brock, planned to serve until retirement and now they are threatened with having their entire careers cut short.”

“Brock has extensive military training and is a decorated service member,” Block said. “Just his story alone makes any notion that these service members might not be fully deployable false.”

Stone has served in the Navy for 11 years, including deployment to Afghanistan. He began to receive medical care for his gender transition in 2016 after the announcement of open transgender service.

“These men and women served admirably and honorably under active duty,” Block said. “Under Trump’s ban, they feel like they’re being pushed back into the shadows again.”

Block stressed to Capital News Service the importance of realizing that transgender service members are being singled out, beyond the same care and treatment that soldiers with medical disabilities receive.

“They are not even being treated the same way,” Block said. “They are being deemed administratively unfit for duty.”

According to the case documents, Stone was close to finalizing a treatment plan with support of doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, that would have included “medically necessary surgery in 2018” for his gender transition.

Now, the entire treatment plan is on hold.

“I can’t imagine serving in the military and accomplishing what they’ve accomplished,” Block said. “To have the courage to step forward like this when you’re under attack from your own commander-in-chief is just incredibly brave.”

Many of Maryland’s leaders have been outspoken against the implementation of this ban. On July 28, Maryland Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin joined a bipartisan group of more than 40 senators in a letter opposing Trump’s Twitter announcement.

On Oct. 10, more than 100 members of the House of Representatives, including Maryland Democratic Reps. Anthony Brown, John Delaney and Jamie Raskin, sent a letter to the Department of Defense requesting all communication around the ban. Their goal is to find “whether the president’s transgender ban announcement reflected a breakdown in communication.”

Paula Neira, a veteran naval officer and transgender woman, believes that the Trump policy will not deter transgender people from joining the military. Neira chose to resign her commission in 1991, after graduating from the Naval Academy with distinction in 1985, in order to live authentically as a woman.

“They’ll hide who they are because wanting to serve your country is so strong that you’ll make those compromises,” Neira said. “You’ll tell yourself that ‘I can hold this. I can keep this compartmentalized.’ Thousands of us did it. My story is not unique in that way.”

Neira served in the days before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was implemented. She now works as a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

“My calling in life was to be an officer in the Navy, and my oath of office did not end when I hung up my uniform” Neira said.

Neira told Capital News Service she did not begin to accept her gender identity until she was 28 years old.

“The running joke in my life is that I want to be this dispassionate advocate like what lawyers are supposed to be, to have this steely-eyed, cold warrior persona. And it just doesn’t work,” Neira said. “Even now, 20-something years later, I can’t talk about this without having my voice crack. The pain of having to sacrifice my career is still so raw.”

“It was the hardest decision of my life,” she added. “And it was because for no other reason than ignorance and bigotry, which is right back where we’re at right now with what the White House wants to do.”

Neira cautioned lawmakers and advocates alike not to lose sight in these conversations of the central issue of transgender military service: namely, service.

“You’re talking with a group of people who are dedicated to defending the country and serving with honor, and with that, the mission always comes first,” Neira said. “You’re not talking about transgender people who happen to be in the military. You’re talking about soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines and Coast Guardsmen who happen to be transgender. It’s that simple.”

By HELEN PARSHALL
Capital News Service

Maryland Legislators Developing Ways to Entice Developers to Combat Homelessness

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Maryland legislators are considering how to entice private developers to build more homes for low-income families as affordable housing in Maryland is becoming increasingly difficult to find, and lawmakers are particularly worried about unaccompanied youth left without stable shelter.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness is taking steps toward crafting a bill that would provide financial benefits to for-profit and nonprofit developers for building affordable housing units, according to Delegate Mary Washington, D-Baltimore.

“Consistently, we are hearing that one of the barriers around housing and stability is the high price of housing,” Washington, one of the committee chairs, said last week. “So we want to incentivize people to build affordable housing.”

About 72 percent of extremely low-income households in Maryland pay more than 50 percent of their income toward housing expenses, according to census data from 2011-2015.

This makes owning, or renting, a living space incredibly difficult and risky, according to United Way of Central Maryland CEO Franklyn Baker.

“There’s no rain plan or safety net if you get sick” or have other emergencies, Baker said.

A crucial factor for affordable housing for low-income households is funding from state and federal governments.

One key program is the Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which provides states an annual allocation based on population. Last year, Maryland was awarded $13.8 million in these tax credits to distribute to developers, according to Novogradac and Co.

Under the program, private developers agree to provide housing to low-income families at below market value. The residences must remain affordable for 30 years, when the agreement between developers and the government expires.

After three decades, private developers maintain control of the property and can charge what they wish.

Across the various programs within the state last year, developers requested $93 million in total funding, yet only $47.5 million was awarded, according to the Community Development Network of Maryland.

Of that, developers requested $56.5 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, but only $27.5 million was awarded between federal tax credits and state subsidies, according to the Affordable Housing Resource Center.

Developers of more than 3,500 affordable housing units in Maryland sought funding this year, but only 43 percent, or 1,505 units, were funded, according to the Community Development Network of Maryland.

The tax credits for nearly 35 percent of federally subsidized housing in Maryland will expire by 2020, meaning that those residences will no longer be set aside as affordable housing, according to the National Housing Preservation Database.

Owners of the developments would have to re-apply for Low Income Housing Tax Credits and therefore sacrifice potential profits at market value, according to Odette Ramos, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland.

These public-private agreements are critical to providing affordable housing to impoverished communities, so the Community Development Network of Maryland is asking the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to help allocate money for these projects, Ramos said.

Representatives from the Community Development Network of Maryland also called the 1999 Assisted Affordable Housing Preservation Act outdated, and suggested that the state update its local laws and practices. The act does not require property owners to contact local social services, which creates a disconnect and leaves families without benefits, Ramos said.

Many of those without housing in Maryland are young adults who have issues with drugs, teen pregnancy, or other issues out of their control, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

Additionally, nearly 70 percent of youth entering out-of-home placement, which includes foster care, had prior issues with neglect, causing developmental and psychological problems, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

In 2016, 1,223 people younger than 25 were surveyed in homeless shelters and through affiliated agencies. Results showed that 893 young people were independent from a guardian and without a stable housing situation, and were classified by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development as unaccompanied homeless youth.

In a 2015 survey of unaccompanied youth, the Maryland Department of Human Resources found 474 unaccompanied youth living in non-traditional housing, according to Amanda Miller with the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Even for children with guardians to care for them, though, life can be difficult.

State Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s County, recounted a story of visiting Prince George’s County’s Shepherd’s Cove Women’s shelter and witnessing more than 60 children with their parents and unable to get services parent.

“I must say, it is very difficult for me to sit on this committee,” Benson said. “These services are absent for them and they’ve lost hope. Homelessness is unacceptable.”

By Josh Schmidt