At the Maryland state medical marijuana commission’s first public meeting in months, marijuana advocates and entrepreneurs complained about the slow pace and the secrecy of the process. (Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP)

Maryland advocates frustrated as medical marijuana inches forward

Maryland’s state medical marijuana commission delivered a blow to marijuana advocates and would-be entrepreneurs recently by abruptly capping the number of businesses that can process marijuana into pills, oils and other products.

The commission also gave conflicting information about when the first long-awaited growing licenses would be issued, with Executive Director Patrick Jameson first saying it would be late summer or early fall, then stating that licenses would come “weeks” after the evaluations of the applications are completed in early July.

At the commission’s first public meeting in months, marijuana advocates and entrepreneurs complained about the slow pace and the secrecy of the process.

“We have been waiting patiently for the commission to do its work, but every day is a challenge when you’re watching your child seize, fall behind in school and lose ground,” said Jennifer Porcari, who has fought for years for access to medical cannabis to treat her child’s epilepsy. “We ask you to remember that the work of this commission is to help Marylanders and children like our daughter.”

An analysis by the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project found Maryland to be among the slowest states to get its approved cannabis program up and running. The commission was supposed to start awarding licenses to grow marijuana for medical use in January. But the commission received applications from twice as many businesses as it anticipated, and the timetable has changed several times. Executive Director Hannah Byron abruptly announced her resignation in December and wasn’t replaced until this month.

The commission, which declined to comment on its pace, has extended by four months its contract with the Regional Economics Studies Institute at Towson University, which is managing a committee of two dozen evaluators that is reviewing and scoring the applications. Records show that the cost of the contract has quadrupled, to more than $2 million.

Towson is expected to deliver scored applications in July to the 15-person commission, which has the final say in who gets licenses. Given the time needed to grow and process cannabis, medical marijuana probably will not be available in the state until the summer of 2017.

The delays are costing businesses money, entrepreneurs and their allies said. “There are applicants who have lost financing; there are applicants who have lost options on leases; there are applicants who are paying mortgages on buildings that they acquired with an expectation originally of [licenses being awarded in] January,” said Terrence McAndrews, an Ellicott City attorney.

The commission voted last week to limit the number of processors to 15. The change was suggested by commission member Harry Robshaw III, police chief in the Prince George’s County, Maryland, town of Cheverly, and adopted unanimously after minimal discussion. State law already limited the number of growing licenses to 15.

Robshaw said the cap on processors would make it easier for regulators to carry out inspections and could be lifted later as the industry matures.

But it also means businesses that win licenses to grow but not process marijuana could have to pay another company for something they had initially planned to handle in-house. Several applicants complained that restricting licenses for processors would make it harder to track cannabis from seed to sale, a unique provision built into Maryland’s law and designed to protect patients by cutting down on tampering and diversion of the product.

“There’s a concern that this was done arbitrarily, long after the applications have been submitted,” said Kate Bell, an analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project who attended the packed commission meeting at the University of Maryland Medical School last week. “It’s not clear to me what the basis is for imposing this limit.”

The intentionally opaque evaluation process has left some Maryland medical marijuana advocates and entrepreneurs asking for more clarity, with one demanding a public schedule showing when regulators meet behind closed doors.

The commission appointed experts in subjects including horticulture and medicine to review and score the applications. The process is double-blind, meaning all names are redacted from the materials that experts review, and the identities of those experts are kept secret. Towson says the subject-matter experts submitted résumés and signed affidavits saying they had no relationships to Maryland applicants before they were selected.

In public comments last week, numerous applicants demanded more transparency from the commission.

Angeline Nanni, chief executive of prospective grower CannaMED Pharmaceuticals, said making the evaluation process more public would “negate any type of behind-closed-doors selection irregularities and possibly prevent post-selection litigation.”

Commission chair Paul Davies said the group has set up a task force and plans a meeting in July to clarify portions of the process.

There were also complaints that Jameson, the commission’s new executive director, and a top Towson official involved in the marijuana-license contract discussed the program this month before a small group at the Center Club, the Baltimore dining club frequented by Maryland’s business elite.

Center Club President David Nevins organized a roundtable discussion with the Towson official and a grower applicant who is represented by Nevins’s public relations firm.

“We believe [this is] not only a conflict of interest but will quite possibly compromise the integrity of this application process,” said Scott Williams, who described himself as a consultant working with more than one applicant.

Daraius Irani, the Towson official who appeared with Jameson, said his remarks were reviewed by the state attorney general’s office and that he is not directly involved in evaluating applications.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, who was instrumental in passing medical marijuana laws and attended the Center Club event, said he “didn’t realize it would be controversial. I’ll go to any meeting where there’s an opportunity to talk about [medical marijuana] and change minds.”