Three years after Maryland first legalized medical marijuana, the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission on Friday picked which companies will get to launch the industry.
But it will be months before final approvals are granted, and the drug won’t be available to patients until next year, after those companies clear final regulatory hurdles — and provided that the selection system doesn’t get held up in litigation.
“This is not the end of the race, obviously,” said Buddy Robenshaw, vice chairman of the commission and police chief in the town of Cheverly. “It may only be the first or second lap, but this is important.”
The decision was based largely on a numerical ranking that did not identify the businesses, setting in motion a tense, 10-day wait for hundreds of applicants. The 15 growers and 15 processors selected Friday will not be publicly identified until Aug. 15, after they clear an initial background search and review of financial records.
“It’s been a very long, tedious process,” said Mary Frances Martin, president of Compassionate Medical Solutions, who hopes to build a growing operation in Howard County. “I’ve had people who are interested in investing lose interest because it’s taken so long.”
Before the meeting, John Phillips with Healthy Choices Alternatives described himself as “frantically optimistic and anxious.” Afterward, he sighed and said he still felt the same way.
“This process has taken on a life of its own,” Phillips said. “You’ve got so much money and sweat equity in it.”
The commission’s executive director, Patrick Jameson, called the process “extensive” but “necessary.”
Lawmakers passed a medical marijuana law in 2013 but revamped it a year later to help the industry get off the ground. Maryland’s limited number of licenses, along with a broad base of potential customers, drove so much interest that it overwhelmed the commission.
The crush of applicants forced state officials to extend the review period late last year by more than six months. More than 800 applications to operate dispensaries are still under review by an independent panel of experts.
Commissioners picked 13 of 15 of the the highest-ranked applicants to grow the drug. Two of the top contenders were bumped from the list as officials hoped to get more “geographic diversity” in the pool of cannabis growers.
“The toughest part of the decision was who gets displaced,” Robenshaw said. “We agonized a lot.”
Medical marijuana industry consultant Rebecca S. Gasca said such after-the-fact decisions have led to lawsuits in other states. The panel did not make clear in advance, for example, how they would determine geographic diversity and how much it would matter in winning a license.
The two applicants who were bumped and replaced by applicants ranked 20 and 21 probably would have preferred to be asked if they would be willing to relocate in order to get a license, said Gasca, CEO of Pistil and Stigma consulting who worked with applicants in Maryland and helped clients in California, Nevada, Hawaii, New York and Puerto Rico.
Commissioner Dario Broccolino, who is also the Howard County state’s attorney, said that he was so impressed by all the top applicants “I don’t know how we could make a mistake. They were all so very, very, very good.”