(Marina Riker, Associated Press file photo)

Maryland finally gets medical marijuana program off the ground

The commission that oversees Maryland’s fledgling medical cannabis program voted last week to award the state’s first full license to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

The stage two license, awarded to Forward Gro LLC, is a final sign-off from regulators for putting plants in the ground. The company will still have to wait for dispensaries to be fully inspected and licensed before it can sell cannabis products to approved patients, which it hopes to do by late summer or early fall.

Gail Rand, chief financial officer and patient advocate for Forward Gro, said “the patients of Maryland will finally have an opportunity to try this medicine that could help tens of thousands of people.”

The vote by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is a milestone for a program that has been beset by repeated delays and questions about the fairness of the licensing process.

“A new industry in Maryland has been officially launched,” commission executive director Patrick Jameson said in a statement. “Medical cannabis production will change the face of Maryland and will have a profound economic and health impact on the entire region.”

Last August, the commission awarded “pre-approval” licenses to 15 companies after receiving a crush of applications. Businesses that failed to win licenses brought lawsuits seeking to open the program up to more firms.

One lawsuit takes issue with the commission’s decision to re-shuffle the list of winning firms in the name of geographic diversity. Another alleges that the commission failed to properly account for racial diversity in awarding licenses.

A legislative effort to expand the number of licenses to include minority businesses and the companies suing the state over geographic diversity failed in the General Assembly last month. And as recently as Monday, a jilted license applicant filed an injunction seeking an emergency ruling to halt the issuing of licenses.

Like many of its competitors, Forward Gro’s investors include well-connected political donors and former government officials. A partial owner of the firm is Gary Mangum, the chief executive of flower wholesaler Bell Nursery and a top donor to Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

The firm also benefits from the expertise of George Johnson, a former Anne Arundel County sheriff and superintendent of the state Department of Natural Resources, who is an investor and head of security.

The marijuana commission is expected to vote later this month on the stage two application of another pre-approved grower, Curio Wellness.