A key figure on the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission defended the panel's decisions on who received licenses to grow marijuana for medical use amid accusations that politically well-connected applicants were selected over better-qualified companies.
Cheverly Police Chief Harry "Buddy" Robshaw, who chairs the growers subcommittee of the commission, said the differences in the scores of the top applicants were very small. The top 15 applicants — which received preliminary growers licenses — were "about interchangeable," he said.
"They really were very close up to [No.] 30 or 40," Robshaw said.
The commission has not released the scores, which guided officials as they picked which companies would receive the potentially lucrative preliminary licenses to grow and process marijuana.
In a wide-ranging interview, Robshaw explained his subcommittee's decisions for the first time. The panel's actions have become the target of blistering criticism from the Legislative Black Caucus and disappointed applicants, two of whom have filed a lawsuit against the commission. Another said this week it was considering legal action.
Robshaw's comments shed light on how Maryland chose winners and losers in the early steps toward launching what could be an important new industry. Some project Maryland's medical marijuana program will grow to generate $129 million in annual business.
The program was created to alleviate the suffering of people with such conditions as cancer, epilepsy and autoimmune diseases. But controversy over the selection process threatens to delay that relief.
"It's unfortunate it's become so convoluted and Maryland patients are going to wait longer for medicine than about any other state," said Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Bell said she doesn't see what the commission gains by not releasing the scores assigned to applicants by researchers at Towson University.
Robshaw, a former Prince George's County police officer, defended the five-member growers subcommittee's decisions, which included replacing two higher-scoring companies with lower-scoring applicants to achieve greater geographic diversity among the preliminary license winners. The 16-member commission ratified the subcommittee's decision in August.
He said the panel was guided by "the idea of fairness, but not fairness to the people involved, but fairness to the process itself."
The subcommittee originally approved 15 licenses on July 27 based solely on the rankings arrived at by Towson's Regional Economic Studies Institute, Robshaw said. Researchers did not know the identities of the applicants. But he said that when the subcommittee learned in the following days where each of the companies planned to locate, they realized the geographical distribution did not meet the commission's goals.
The commission had decided to use a map of the state's agricultural zones to guide its decisions, Robshaw said. Going by that map, one region of the state was left out — the Lower Eastern Shore.
That map showed Anne Arundel County, which had an applicant in the top 15, in the Southern Maryland zone. But Robshaw said the committee did not think Anne Arundel counted as Southern Maryland.
Robshaw said the subcommittee went down the list on July 29 and — not knowing the identities of the companies — found another applicant in the Southern Maryland zone. This one, ranked 20th, was from Prince George's County.
The subcommittee elevated that company, Holistic Industries LLC, to No. 14. It bumped the 21st-ranked applicant to No. 15 to represent the Lower Shore. And it demoted the No. 8 and No. 12 applicants.
"It was the only fair way to accomplish that task," Robshaw said. He added that the committee "didn't want to go too far down the list" but felt there wasn't much difference in quality between No. 21 and the original 15.
The elevation of Holistic raised suspicions because it is a politically well-connected company represented by the state's highest-paid lobbyist, Gerard E. Evans. Its investors include Evans' son-in-law and a distant cousin of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
Among the applicants that suspect politics tainted the selection is the one originally ranked No. 17. That company, Maryland Natural Treatment Solutions, was passed over even though it had offered to move from its preferred Caroline County location to anywhere the commission preferred. Commission staff disregarded that offer.
Ross Morreale, a consultant and attorney for Maryland Natural Treatment, called the commission's process a "sham" and said his company is considering a lawsuit.
"It's like they're making the rules up as they go to benefit them and their pals," Morreale said. "We think it's outrageous. People should probably go to jail over this."
Robshaw, who is not paid for his commission work, said he doesn't know Miller. He said that while he knew Evans through a parent-teacher association in the 1980s, he hasn't spoken to the lobbyist for at least 20 years. Robshaw insisted that no outside influence affected the choices.
"I'm not going to hurt my reputation in the community by helping somebody I don't know," he said.
Robshaw said neither he nor other commission members knew of Maryland Natural Treatment's offer to move. He defended the decision to withhold that information, saying state regulations required that location be specified in the application.
If Maryland Natural Treatment sues, it will be the third rejected applicant to take the state to court. No. 8 Maryland Cultivation and Processing and No. 12 GTI Maryland have already filed a lawsuit, charging the commission broke its own rules.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for GTI, said there is no rule requiring an applicant to identify a proposed site. GTI's CEO, Pete Kadens, called the process "improper" and said "politics were involved."
Robshaw said committee members knew their decision to reshuffle the rankings could bring a legal challenge.
"I don't think we were naive to the idea, but I don't think we were worried that would be a possibility," he said.
The General Assembly's black caucus has also threatened to take action. Its members are considering holding up the final issuance of licenses because none of the grower licenses were awarded to companies with African-American ownership.
The commission has said it received legal advice that it could not take the race of applicants into consideration.