The leader of the General Assembly's black caucus was outraged Friday that medical marijuana regulators plan to choose companies to dispense the drug while the state's selection process is mired in controversy.
Black lawmakers felt they already had grounds for a civil rights fight because firms owned by African-Americans did not win any of the 15 preliminary licenses to grow marijuana. The decision to issue preliminary licenses for dispensaries before addressing that problem drew Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn's rebuke.
"It's unbelievable to me that the commission would move forward on anything when they know all of their decisions to date are under complete scrutiny," said Glenn, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. "Why move forward and create more confusion and discord with additional licenses?"
Vanessa Lyon, spokeswoman for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, pointed out that no final licenses have been issued.
She said the commission did not consider halting the process and is "committed to ensuring that qualifying patients, the sick and suffering of Maryland, are provided with a process to receive the most safe and effective medicine in the timeliest manner possible."
Glenn, a Democrat, said she looks forward to the start of the General Assembly session in January. She plans to introduce emergency legislation that would dismantle and replace the current commission.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said preliminary medical marijuana license decisions "are in the hands of this independent commission and the legal system." The current medical marijuana program was created in 2014, before Hogan was elected.
Darrell Carrington, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association, said the organization is pleased the dispensary licenses will be awarded. He said there is still "a way in which we can make sure there is fairness and diversity in the program."
Three companies are challenging some of the commission's earlier decisions in court.
One company that lost out on a potential grower license filed a lawsuit over the lack of diversity among winners. Two other companies excluded from the list of potential growers have filed a separate lawsuit alleging that the commission improperly weighted geographic diversity.
Amid the controversy, hundreds of applicants hoping to open dispensaries are waiting.
More than a year ago, 882 applications were filed to operate one of about 100 dispensaries legalized in the state. Some companies have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to hold on to real estate for potential facilities. Others have lost investors and many are running low on patience.
"It's a lot of stress for many of the groups that are waiting for a decision," Carrington said. "Investors like their money to make them money. They don't like it to sit in an escrow account for a year."
The commission said Thursday evening that it plans to announce dispensary license winners Dec. 9. What should have been a milestone in Maryland's medical marijuana program was instead met with skepticism.
"I'm thrilled. And I'll believe it when I see it," said Megan Rogers, co-chair of the Women Grow business organization and a dispensary applicant.
"We've been sending our team emails every three months, updating them on nothing," she said. "Win or lose, we're going to celebrate once the preliminary licenses are issued. I mean, win, lose or draw, our team is happy that someone is getting a license."
Final dispensary licenses will not be issued until the medical marijuana commission conducts a more detailed review of each company's ability to deliver on their promises. That process could take several months.
"Been a long time to getting here," said Gary Mangum, president of ForwardGro. Mangum's company received a preliminary license to grow cannabis.
He said it will be at least two months before his company is ready to ask the commission to issue a final grower license. He said he'll need dispensaries ready to sell medical marijuana, so he's pleased the commission's moving forward.
"It's in the best interest of the patients," he said. "These businesses getting open are the only way we ultimately get the medicine to patients."
The commission initially expected to award all preliminary licenses by February 2016. Preliminary grower and processor licenses were issued in August.
The delay was partially caused by the volume of applicants, which was more than three times what the commission expected. Each of the more than 120-part applications was reviewed and scored by a team of experts assembled by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute.
That process has also come under scrutiny because the commission has declined to release the individual scores for each application. Only the relative ranking of the top applicants has been publicly revealed.
John Pica is an attorney for Alternative Medicine Maryland, one of the companies suing the commission over diversity concerns. He said even though the company wants to shut down the process, its stakeholders are eager to see who wins dispensary licenses — and whether owners of those businesses reflect Maryland's diversity.
People are "anxious to see what happens with the dispensaries," Pica said. "People are also anxious to see what happens in court."