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Is $2.3 million 'too expensive' to review medical marijuana applications?

It has taken the state six months longer than envisioned to review applicants for the state's new business licenses for medical marijuana, and the process has cost taxpayers about $2 million — nearly five times the original estimate.

When state officials dreamed up a double-blind, anonymous and apolitical process to spend a full day vetting every medical marijuana license application, they wildly underestimated the job and its price tag.

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The average cost to review an application is now more than $4,000, according to records provided to The Baltimore Sun.

The latest executive director for the state's medical cannabis commission, Patrick Jameson, publicly rebuked his bosses and predecessors last week, saying the process they set up is "too cumbersome," has taken "too long" and is "too expensive."

In response, the man in charge of implementing the plan told The Sun that he and state officials would have come up with a different plan if they had accurately guessed how many people would apply to get into Maryland's nascent medical cannabis business.

"Had we known there were 1,100 applications, we would have gone about this differently," said Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. The state hired RESI to independently review and score the applications to grow, process and dispense the drug.

The state's medical cannabis commission thought perhaps 300 companies would apply to get into Maryland's medical pot business. More than 1,080 did.

Nearly all of those applications poured into the offices of the cannabis commission in the final hours before last fall's deadline. By then, the state had negotiated a contract with RESI to review and score the lengthy applications in a way that did not take into account the identity of the applicants.

RESI had lined up about two dozen analysts to break down the more-than-120-part applications into pieces so that the same person scored the same question on every single application.

Suddenly, Irani and his team needed to ask those people — business professionals and academics — to more than triple their commitment to the project.

"I tried to tell them, 'Look, there's a consistent amount of money for you,'" Irani said. "'Please don't try to rob us. We're trying to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money.'"

Irani said the per-application expense was roughly the same after the deals with the analysts were renegotiated. Records obtained by The Sun show the cost of reviewing the applications ballooned almost five-fold from $464,607 to $2.26 million.

By January — around the time Irani's group had been scheduled to finish reviewing the applications — state officials had only just finished uploading them to servers and making sure applicants had filled out each of the 120 to 150 questions.

Only then did the intricate process of reviewing the applications begin. Irani said participants expected 1 to 1.5 applications to be processed per day.

"We wanted to make sure there was credibility to the review," he said. "We didn't want anyone to say we rushed through it. … We had learned from other states this is a critical part of the process. People want to know they were treated fairly."

Just last week, RESI approached the end of scoring the 146 applications to grow the drug and 124 others to process it. About another 800 applications — many of them duplicative — for dispensaries are still pending.

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"Hindsight is always 20/20," Irani said.

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