One-ounce bags of medicinal marijuana are displayed at the Berkeley Patients Group March 25, 2010 in Berkeley, California. Maryland has legalized medical marijuana but has seen multiple delays in getting cultivation and distribution started. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Maryland faces yet another delay in medical marijuana licensing with judge’s order

Maryland’s medical marijuana program faces a potential new delay after a judge Thursday ordered a temporary halt to the program pending a hearing as part of a lawsuit that alleges regulators failed to consider racial diversity in licensing businesses.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams granted a temporary restraining order barring the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission from granting new licenses to grow medical marijuana until a June 2 hearing.

The lawsuit by Alternative Medicine Maryland, a majority-black-owned company that failed to get a license, argues that regulators failed to consider minority ownership despite a legal mandate to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity.

In a one-page order, Williams said he granted the motion “on the grounds that irreparable harm will result to plaintiff in the form of loss of ability, once all licenses are issued” to other businesses.

The ruling comes as Maryland’s long-delayed and controversial medical marijuana program was finally getting off the ground. Regulators had preapproved 15 companies, none led by African-Americans, and have given them until August to pass final inspections and background checks.

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission last week cleared the first company, ForwardGro of Anne Arundel County, to start growing marijuana. It appears to be unaffected by the order, and Gail Rand, Forward Gro’s chief financial officer, declined to comment on the ruling.

Representatives of the cannabis commission and attorney general’s office, which is defending the commission in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A group representing pre-licensed growers and processors condemned the court ruling and dismissed the lawsuit as frivolous, noting the leaders of Alternative Medicine Maryland also failed to get a license to grow marijuana in New York. The company is run by a New York health-care executive.

“AMM is simply not qualified to deliver high-quality medical cannabis to patients, and the circuit court should not let a failed out-of-state company cause even further delays in Maryland’s medical cannabis program,” said Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association.

Court filings also suggest that Alternative Medicine Maryland was nowhere near the finalists for a license because it planned to locate in Talbot County, and a redacted list of the 60 top-ranked applicants included none in that area.

Questions about racial diversity are just one of several controversies that have embroiled the medical marijuana program and threaten further delays.

Two other cultivation applicants are suing cannabis regulators for rejecting them in favor of lower-ranked applicants from underrepresented parts of the state.

A bill that would give minorities priority to win five cultivation licenses failed in the final minutes of the General Assembly session that ended in April. Leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland are trying to reconvene the legislature for a special session to pass that legislation.

Cannabis commissioners say they didn’t consider the race of applicants because the attorney general’s office advised them that such a move would be unconstitutional, absent evidence of disparities in the industry.

Gov. Larry Hogan, R, has ordered his administration to conduct a study of racial disparities in the medical marijuana industry, the first step toward justifying racial preferences in licensing.