The 15 marijuana growers and the first wave of processors that together will launch Maryland's medical marijuana industry could be chosen as soon as Aug. 5, state officials announced Tuesday.
The licensing decisions come after months of delay for the hundreds of applicants seeking to grow and process medical marijuana in Maryland. The initial plan was to issue licenses by February.
State lawmakers crafted a program with a limited number of suppliers and a wide base of potential customers, attracting more than 1,000 investors.
The program has been slow to get off the ground; the highly competitive applications have been undergoing a review and ranking by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute since December.
On Tuesday, Patrick Jameson, the Medical Cannabis Commission's new executive director, derided the process as having taken "too long" and called it "too cumbersome" and "too expensive."
Commission members did not respond to Jameson's criticism, except to say they were disappointed by his comments and believed they had accomplished a lot within their first year before he came on board in April.
Paul Davies, a physician and chairman of the state's Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission, said the commission would publicly review the top-ranked growing and processing applications within weeks and decide which would receive preliminary licenses.
The soonest that could happen is likely Aug. 5, he said, but he declined to set a date.
"We don't want to waste a single day," Davies said. "It's going to be an exciting few weeks."
Preliminary licenses for up to 94 dispensaries will be awarded later, officials said.
Jameson, who was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan, said the commission's public review for growers and processors will be based on rankings that removed all identifying information from the applications. Although the commission will pick the top applicants, the identities of the winners won't be revealed until a few days later.
"Nobody's going to know anything," Jameson said.
Once granted preliminary approval, the companies must pay large licensing fees to the state and undergo a series of inspections before obtaining licenses to operate.
After the licenses are issued, the drug should be ready for patients in about six months, Davies said.
Maryland set among the highest medical marijuana licensing fees in the country, but nonetheless attracted a crush of investors eager to get into the business.
Compared with the other 24 states with medical marijuana programs, Maryland plans relatively few grower and dispensary licenses. But it allows a range of medical professionals — including dentists — to recommend the drug, and it allows them to suggest it for patients who do not live in the state.
Industry experts say the tightly controlled supply and broad, built-in demand makes Maryland an intriguing market. Maryland is also the southernmost state on the Eastern Seaboard to legalize medical marijuana.
Competition for the licenses is fierce because investors view the medical marijuana industry as a potential precursor to a recreational marijuana industry. Marijuana industry analyst ArcView Market Research estimates the U.S. recreational marijuana industry will take in $6.7 billion in revenue this year and projects it to more than triple to $21.8 billion by 2020.