Court: Medical marijuana program can proceed as legal battle continues

The state's top court ruled Friday that the medical cannabis commission can issue final licenses to companies to grow the drug even as legal challenges to the program's rollout continue.

The Court of Appeals held up a case from proceeding in Baltimore Circuit Court last week in which a company that failed to win a lucrative license to grow medical cannabis argues the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission ignored a state law that requires applicants' racial diversity to be considered when awarding preliminary licenses.

Ownership of the company that filed the lawsuit, Alternative Medicine Maryland, is 84 percent African-American.

Maryland's high court halted the case after companies with preliminary licenses to grow medical marijuana appealed Circuit Judge Barry Williams' denial of their request to testify in the case. On Friday, the Court of Appeals scheduled oral arguments on that appeal for July 27.

Cannabis commission officials said they believed the panel was able to legally issue licenses before Friday's ruling, but chose not to because they were not clear on the court's intent when it stopped the Circuit Court case last week. Williams had temporarily halted the issuance of final licenses, but his order expired Sunday.

Paul Davies, chairman of the commission, and Patrick Jameson, its director, declined to comment further while staff and lawyers reviewed the high court's ruling.

The growers seeking to intervene, organized as the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, were pleased by the court's order.

"We are gratified by the Court's swift disposition of the restraining order, thus allowing this critically-important public health program to proceed," said Alan Rifkin, the group's attorney.

John Pica, an attorney representing Alternative Medicine Maryland, said the court's ruling was another "round in a championship fight."

Pica believes his client has a strong case, and that the commission and other growing companies may be taking a risk moving forward with licenses as the legal fight continues.

"If licenses are granted and companies begin to grow, they do so at their own risk," Pica said. "It's our firm position that these licenses were awarded unlawfully. We have shown clearly that the state did not follow the law."

The growers have argued that they've collectively invested more than $200 million in getting their businesses up and running, and therefore should have a voice in Alternative Medicine Maryland's lawsuit. They've argued that any further delays in the medical cannabis program will deprive patients of a drug they need.

Williams, however, had ruled that companies without final licenses were not permitted to have a say in whether the entire licensing process should be stopped.

Once the Court of Appeals decides whether to allow the companies to intervene, then the courts will weigh the merits of the underlying lawsuit.

So far, just one company has received a final license to open a cannabis growing facility, ForwardGro in Anne Arundel County. None of the 15 companies selected for growing licenses is led by African-Americans.

Maryland's medical cannabis program has been plagued with problems.

State lawmakers first legalized medical cannabis in 2013. But that law required the drug to be dispensed by academic institutions, and none signed up.

Lawmakers retooled the program, opening it up to private companies to grow, process and dispense the drug. The cannabis commission came under fire last year when it bumped two high-ranking applicants down and elevated two others to achieve geographic diversity, but did not consider racial diversity in selecting preliminary license winners.

State lawmakers considered modifying the program during the General Assembly session that concluded in April. One bill would have awarded new licenses in a way that would have favored minority-owned companies, and another would have created those new licenses as well as two others for the companies that were bumped for geographic reasons.

The legislation failed on the final day of the annual 90-day session.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland have called for a special session to reconsider the cannabis legislation.

pwood@baltsun.com

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