Taking a tour of ForwardGro, one of the 15 pre-approved medical marijuana growers in the state. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
Regulators have issued the first license to grow medical marijuana in Maryland, allowing a sprawling 2-acre warehouse in Anne Arundel County to immediately start cultivating the drug.
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to grant final approval to a company called ForwardGro, more than four years after the state first legalized the medicinal use of pot.
"A new industry in Maryland has been launched," said Patrick Jameson, executive director of the commission. "They can start to grow immediately."
"I'm overjoyed," said Gail Rand, the company's chief financial officer. She started lobbying the Maryland General Assembly more than five years ago to legalize marijuana in the hope that the drug would minimize her son Logan's epileptic seizures. One of the company's initial cannabis strains was selected to treat Logan's symptoms.
ForwardGro was the first of 15 companies granted preliminary licenses in August 2016 to earn final approval to grow the drug. Since then, the industry has been subject to political controversy and two lawsuits over how the potentially lucrative licenses were awarded.
Also on Wednesday, the commission suspended the preliminary growing license for another of the 15 initial winners.
Commissioner Dario Broccolino said MaryMed LLC has repeatedly failed to produce documents related to the firm's parent company, Vireo Health, and its operations in New York and Minnesota.
Broccolino and commission officials declined to discuss their specific concerns.
But prosecutors in Minnesota have accused two of Vireo Health's former top officials of moving $500,000 in marijuana oil illegally from the company's Minnesota facilities to its New York operation. One of the former officials faces felony drug charges in Minnesota.
Vireo Health officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, but in the past have denied any wrongdoing.
MaryMed's attorney, Eddie L. Pounds, said in a statement that "we have deep concerns about today's decision and will contest it vigorously."
Broccolino said MaryMed referred in its application to its success in other states. He said more than two weeks have passed since the commission's third request for information about its operations elsewhere.
Jameson, the commission director, would not say under what circumstances MaryMed's preliminary license would be reinstated. He said the records were necessary to evaluate whether MaryMed deserved final approval for all of its proposed operations, which include a growing facility in Dorchester County, a processing operation, and a dispensary in Anne Arundel County.
Wednesday's approval of ForwardGro follows the emergency request of a medical marijuana company in Baltimore Circuit Court Monday to prevent the commission from issuing any final licenses.
Alternative Medicine Maryland, which is led by an African-American and did not receive a preliminary license, alleged in a lawsuit last year that the commission broke the law by failing to use a race-conscious application process.
Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams has not ruled on the emergency motion. An attorney for Alternative Medicine Maryland said a hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 25.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic legislative leaders are considering recalling lawmakers for a special legislative session at which they would discuss how to increase diversity among medical marijuana growers.
Maryland lawmakers first approved medical marijuana in 2013, but the program relied on academic institutions to distribute the drug, and none volunteered.
The legislature revamped the program the following year and empowered an existing medical marijuana advisory commission to become regulators and invent the industry from scratch.
Maryland has been among the slowest states in the country to get a medical marijuana program off the ground.
"We're glad to see that Maryland regulators are finally getting medicine into the hands of patients, who have been waiting too long," said Kate Bell, a lawyer with the Marijuana Policy Project advocacy group.
None of the other 14 companies that received preliminary approval to grow the drug has asked for final approval, Jameson said, but he expects some are close.
Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, said he expects several growers to be ready within the next 30 days.
"We couldn't be more excited, especially in light of all the potential delays," said Van Wingerden, who is president of SunMed Growers in Cecil County and expects his company to be ready in July.
"We're extremely happy that patients of Maryland can finally stop waiting. It's been four years."
Once ForwardGro harvests its cannabis flowers, it will sell them to licensed processors to turn the marijuana into oils, tinctures and vapor products for patients. The company will also sell directly to dispensaries.
ForwardGro is run by Gary Mangum, president and CEO of Bell Nursery USA and a top donor to Hogan. Former Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson is the company's head of security.
As of Wednesday, 6,500 patients had applied for the medical marijuana program, commission officials said, and 276 physicians had registered to recommend the drug.
"This is the most delightful part of being on this commission," Commissioner Saundra Washington said moments before the panel approved the first medical marijuana growing license. "To see this day finally come to fruition is extremely emotional for those of us who have advocated for this."