Taking a tour of ForwardGro, one of the 15 pre-approved medical marijuana growers in the state. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
A medical marijuana company filed an emergency motion Monday asking a judge to forbid the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission from issuing any final licenses to grow the drug.
If granted, the request could put on hold an industry that was poised to get off the ground this month after years of delay and controversy.
Alternative Medicine Maryland asked Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams to issue a temporary injunction against the commission, arguing the entire licensing process should be stopped because the commission appears poised to grant final licenses.
The company first wants the court to weigh in on whether the law was followed during the process. In the motion, the company's lawyers argued that a lawyer for the state admitted during a deposition last week that regulators did not consider applicants' race when awarding preliminary licenses as required by law.
The request for an emergency halt to the process comes as the marijuana commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the progress of 15 companies that did win initial approval to grow marijuana — a meeting that is among the final steps in the process to begin legal cultivation of medical marijuana.
None of the 15 companies that won initial approval to grow the drug are led by African-Americans, who make up about a third of the state's population.
"Time is of the essence," Alternative Medicine Maryland's lawyers wrote to Judge Williams. "It is undisputed that the commission made no attempt to ... actively seek racial and ethnic diversity throughout the licensing process."
The commission's chairman, Paul Davies, did not respond to a request for comment.
The leader of a medical marijuana industry group said in a statement that the filing would delay making medical marijuana available to patients in the name of "money and power."
"This is a frivolous legal filing by an out-of state company and its lobbyist that threatens to delay Maryland's medical cannabis program even further," said Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Association. Alternative Medicine Maryland "was unsuccessful in its home state of New York, did not even finish in the top 20 in Maryland's double-blind application process, and is now seeking to disrupt Maryland's medical cannabis program to satisfy its own greed."
The state law legalizing medical marijuana required the commission to "actively seek" racial diversity among approved growers and distributors. Alternative Medicine Maryland, which is led by an African-American and did not receive a preliminary license, filed a lawsuit last year alleging the commission broke the law by failing to use a race-conscious application process.
Attorneys for the company said last week's deposition marked the first time that the state acknowledged in court proceedings that it did not dispute that regulators did not consider race.
The commission's failure to consider race when picking the winning companies also sparked a prolonged fight in the Maryland General Assembly over whether to expand the industry. The Legislative Black Caucus pushed for at least five more marijuana growing licenses to be issued, in order to make sure minority-owned firms had a fair shot a potentially lucrative industry. The issue was not resolved before the annual legislative session adjourned last month.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and a leading medical marijuana advocate, said the company's motion to halt the process because of racial disparity was "wonderful."
"I don't want to keep this drug out of the hands of patients any longer than necessary," she said. "Delays are never good, but delays are sometimes necessary."
Gov. Larry Hogan has issued an executive order asking for disparity study on whether minority companies face a disadvantage in the medical marijuana industry. Such a study is a precursor to giving preference on the basis of race.
The governor and legislative leaders also are considering whether to recall lawmakers to Annapolis for a special legislative session to consider how to increase diversity among medical marijuana growers.
The state legalized medical marijuana in 2013, but it has taken more than four years for the program to launch.