Maryland selected 15 finalists from 145 applicants to grow and process medical marijuana last year. None has received final approval, but the selection process has been the subject of controversy. Pictured: a medical marijuana sign on display at The Herban Underground, a Colorado shop located in Denver. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

Questions of politics continue to swirl around Maryland medical marijuana license distribution

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Two Maryland companies say the state is wrongly refusing to explain why they were abruptly bumped off a list of 15 finalists to be licensed to grow medical marijuana in the state.

Green Thumb Industries and Maryland Cultivation and Processing have asked a Baltimore judge to decide whether the state is abusing the “deliberative process privilege,” which allows internal deliberations among members of a state commission to be kept secret.

Assistant Attorney General Heather Nelson cited that rule in more than 80 objections to attorneys’ questions during the January deposition of Deborah Miran — the only person on a Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission subcommittee who voted against replacing the two companies with others ranked lower.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman with the attorney general’s office, said the office doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation. “The appropriate forum to litigate this is in the courtroom, not in the press,” she said.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the case reinforces the government watchdog group’s concerns about abuse of such exemptions.

“We are hopeful that the judge will take a close look at the overuse of privilege here and hopefully open the door to more transparency in the case,” Bevan-Dangel said.

Last summer, Maryland selected 15 finalists from 145 applicants to grow and process medical marijuana, but none has received final approval. Maryland is one of 28 states that allow medical marijuana. The initiative has attracted intense interest in a market that stands to be lucrative because the law allows wide patient access.

Green Thumb applied to grow marijuana for medical use in Washington County and initially was ranked 12th in an evaluation of qualifications. Maryland Cultivation and Processing applied for a license in Frederick County and was ranked eighth.

The sudden rise of Holistic Industries from the 20th ranking to 14th to grow marijuana in Prince George’s County has drawn attention, partly because of its political ties. The company’s team includes former Maryland health secretary Nelson Sabatini and Ismael “Vince” Canales, who heads the state’s Fraternal Order of Police. Holistic also had Gerard Evans, the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis, advocating for it.

Shore Naturals Rx of Worcester County had been ranked 21st and was moved up to 15th.

One of the most vigorously contested lines of questioning in Miran’s deposition focused on the accuracy of an affidavit submitted by Harry Robshaw, the commission’s vice chairman. He has said the companies were switched to comply with the need for geographic diversity.

In Robshaw’s November affidavit, he wrote that the commission’s subcommittee met July 27 to receive a presentation on the rankings by Towson University’s Research Economics Statistics Institute.

Robshaw, who is police chief in Cheverly in Prince George’s County, wrote that the subcommittee initially deliberated and adjourned because it had incomplete information about where the applicants would operate. It got that information two days later, when it voted on the proposed ranking to present to the full commission Aug. 5.

But Miran contradicted that. When asked by Philip Andrews, an attorney for Green Thumb, whether it was accurate to say the subcommittee had incomplete information during its July 27 meeting, Miran said: “No.” She was not allowed to answer why that wasn’t true because Nelson objected, citing the deliberative privilege.

“I don’t think the government, as a defendant, is permitted to drop facts in a purportedly sworn affidavit and then prohibit someone with knowledge from responding to whether those facts are true,” Andrews said.

Miran testified that the subcommittee vote July 29 was taken to overturn the initial vote July 27, which was 5-0. She said she voted against the switch July 29 because she believed “we did not have a substantial reason to do so.”

Miran also testified that she explained her July 29 dissenting vote in writing, but that her dissent was edited twice, once by Robshaw and again, she believed, by Nelson. Nelson objected to requests by company attorneys for Miran to describe her dissent.

Vanessa Lyon, a commission spokeswoman, said the panel can’t comment on current litigation or legal strategy, but she noted the full commission voted unanimously for the rankings of 15 companies in August.

“Additionally, former commissioner Miran was given unfettered access to a public platform to voice her support or opposition before and during the final vote,” Lyon wrote in an email.

Lanny Davis, an attorney for GTI, said he is asking Democratic Attorney General Brian Frosh to release all versions of Miran’s original dissent.