After Montgomery County resident Damon Lue-Maxwell became certified to buy medical cannabis, he experimented with a few different products before finding which would best stem his anxiety.

Among the fruit-flavored elixirs, oral drops, potent, smokable concentrates, chocolates and raw cannabis flower sitting on contemporary backlit shelves and in glass cases, Lue-Maxwell decided he best liked what he described as the “faster acting” affects of smoking cannabis through a vape pen. Especially when he’s using it to help him sleep, he said.

But the 25-year-old barista didn’t have to figure it out alone. Staff members at the Herbiculture dispensary in Burtonsville, called “budtenders,” helped him navigate the seemingly endless menu of flavors, aromas, consumption methods and possible effects to tailor his cannabis experience.

“As soon as you walk in, it’s such a warm, welcome environment,” Lue-Maxwell said of his shopping experience.

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That service could be a preview of what Marylanders can expect when recreational marijuana becomes legal this year.

In November, Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing the use and possession of 10 ounces or less of recreational cannabis for those 21 and older. The law goes into effect July 1, and legislators have until then to set up rules for recreational purchases or risk losing market share and potential tax revenues to illicit sales.

At Herbiculture, it’s clear the staff knows their products.

Like a sommelier guiding a diner through a complex wine list, budtenders, trained in the basics of cannabis science, interpret for customers what is generally known about the effects of various weed strains.

Want some cannabis that may help you fall asleep and smells faintly of fruit? Don’t want to have the munchies afterward? Looking for a strain known for its anti-inflammatory qualities? Budtenders can help you find what you seek based on the cannabis plant’s naturally occurring chemicals, called terpenes.

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Venus Hemachandra, Herbiculture’s co-founder and managing director, said her staff receives several weeks of training in state regulations, store policy and the basics of cannabis science to guide patients like Lue-Maxwell through the intoxicating buffet of offerings.

Weed growers name different cannabis strains according to the flower bud’s characteristics, Hemachandra said. Often names like “Burnt Toast,” “Chocolate Mint” or “Cherry Breeze” give a nod to what a bud may smell like, taste like or how it may make someone feel due to the terpenes, she said.

Hemachandra unseals a large bag of whole cannabis buds cut from a strain named “Orange Grove,” cultivated by Baltimore City grower Evermore. The plant’s terpenes give the buds a subdued, citrus fragrance. The tropical potpourri fills the tiny back room as employees zip back and forth moving product between the stock rooms and the retail space.

Lue-Maxwell is one of the more than 161,000 certified patients participating in Maryland’s medical cannabis program, which this year has averaged $42 million a month in retail sales, according to online state data. And the potential for cannabis-generated revenue is expected to compound as Maryland looks to create a recreational market.

But for another few months, cannabis is legal for only those who have obtained a state-issued ID by registering with the state and getting a medical practitioner’s approval.

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Back in the waiting room, the receptionist welcomes longtime customer Kathy Hunter like she’s an old friend. Before long, the pair are bantering and cracking jokes. The 69-year-old, who has been buying medical cannabis from Herbiculture for a little over two years, checks in at the desk. She shows the receptionist her state-issued ID card.

The receptionist checked Hunter’s monthly allotment in a statewide database, another state requirement meant to track program qualifications and purchases. Then Hunter took a seat in the waiting room.

While patients can go to any dispensary in the state, they cannot buy more than what their monthly prescription allows during a rolling 30-day period. A standard dried flower allotment is 120 grams or 36 grams of THC for products like oils and lotions, according to the state. But a provider can prescribe more or less at their discretion.

A staff person called Hunter’s name, checked her ID again, and with a key card, swiped open the door to the retail shop.

The budtender stood behind a glass counter filled with lighters and accessories; behind her on the wall sat vibrant glass-blown bongs displayed like pieces of art in a museum gift shop.

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“I’m a flower girl,” Hunter told her, referring to her preferred method of consumption and also the source of the earthy aroma permeating the store.

“It helps me sleep, helps me with pain,” she said, holding her order packed in a discreet brown gift bag.

Pharmaceutical pain medicine prescribed to Hunter decades ago for a back injury left her addicted to opioids and eventually heroin, she said. She stopped taking the illegal drugs at age 60 and has found relief from smoking medical cannabis, which she said has “freed her from addiction.”

Burtonsville resident and medical cannabis customer Norman Seignious, 35, said he’s “excited” Maryland has legalized recreational cannabis so that more people will gain access to something that for years has helped him manage chronic low back pain caused by an extra vertebra in his lower back.

“It just calms me down and reduces my pain,” he said.

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Setting up a state recreational marijuana marketplace will be a top priority when lawmakers return to Annapolis this month for their annual 90-day legislative session.

Established medical cannabis business owners will have to wait and see how the state will incorporate their hard-earned expertise and the plentiful products already being grown, made and distributed in Maryland into the recreational market mix.

There’s a great deal of knowledge and experience gained from established dispensary operators and growers upon which the state can build, Hemachandra said, adding, “We don’t have to start from scratch.”

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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