A medical marijuana sign on display at The Herban Underground, a Denver, Colorado shop. Whether Maryland residents will ever see such signs remains in limbo. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

Maryland high court steps in but medical cannabis licensing still on hold

BALTIMORE — Maryland’s highest court on Friday intervened in a lawsuit that threatened to upend the state’s long-awaited medical marijuana program, but whether the state can move forward remains in question.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams had scheduled a Friday hearing on whether to grant an injunction to block regulators from authorizing companies to grow marijuana while a lawsuit alleging the state failed to consider racial diversity in setting up the industry was pending.

But Williams abruptly stopped the hearing as soon as it began, citing an order from the Maryland Court of Appeals. The state high court paused the proceedings after an appeal from patients and other pre-licensed marijuana growers who wanted to intervene in the lawsuit. Williams had denied their request, triggering their appeal.

Williams last week ordered the state to temporarily halt licensing marijuana growers until he could hold a full hearing on the matter. Maryland state officials could not immediately say whether they could resume the program because of the high court’s ruling.

It’s also unclear what the next steps will be for the litigation.

The one-page order from the Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera barred the lower court from holding a hearing on the restraining order until further guidance from her court.

The lawsuit holding everything up was filed by Alternative Medicine Maryland, a company led by a black health-care executive from New York, after it failed to win a cultivation license. It alleges that the process of selecting growers was illegal because regulators did not follow a provision in the medical marijuana legalization law calling on them to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity among growers.

Maryland has given preliminary approval to 15 companies to grow the state’s first legal marijuana crop, and authorized the first business to begin operations last month. None are led by African Americans.

First legalized in 2013, the medical marijuana program has been embroiled in various controversies and hit with repeated delays.