Taking a tour of ForwardGro, one of the 15 pre-approved medical marijuana growers in the state. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
Maryland's beleaguered medical marijuana industry faces a critical deadline Monday, when companies the state has selected to grow the plant are required to be operational. Those that are not ready risk losing their lucrative licenses.
Already, marijuana regulators are under pressure from powerful state lawmakers to leave companies that can't meet the deadline behind.
"The whole purpose of this whole entire thing is that we have enough growers out there to provide medicine for patients," said Sen. Thomas Mac Middleton, the Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
Monday is the finish line of a 365-day race for the 15 companies picked last August to grow marijuana.
Based on interviews with companies, lobbyists, officials and industry experts, it appears that only about half of the remaining firms will be ready in time.
Middleton and Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, urged marijuana regulators this month to "take every reasonable measure to ensure" companies are ready on time, and to "promptly" replace those that are not with new companies.
The frenzy to get final inspections and approval is so harried that Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission Executive Director Patrick Jameson was unable to say Friday how many firms might need an extension.
Jameson said his inspectors would be in the field doing final checks up until the deadline arrives — and beyond it.
One of those inspectors was scheduled to visit Jake Van Wingerden's SunMed Growers in Cecil County on Monday to look over Van Wingerden's just-completed greenhouse at the same time regulators meet to award his competitors final licenses.
Wingerden said his company asked for final inspection more than a week ago, but the schedule of inspectors was too tight to fit them in before Monday. He said he still has to paint, put in grass and dress up the flowerbeds.
The last year has "definitely been a roller coaster," Van Wingerden said.
"We were elated that we were [selected], and then it felt like the arrows started coming our way," he said. "It feels like we've been fighting for our survival."
The future of the industry has been uncertain as both the General Assembly and the courts have taken a close look at whether it should move forward.
As recently as Friday, a judge was weighing whether to shut down final licensing as he considered whether the process by which the commission picked winners was unconstitutional.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams on Friday denied an emergency request to put licensing on hold, but warned lawyers for the state and for growers that the court has authority to invalidate any licenses if it determined they were awarded improperly.
The case was one of two brought by firms that did not win licenses and now are challenging the selection process in court. Leading advocates for medical marijuana have called for a whole new process — and a whole new commission that would be more accountable.
"I don't think that commission should be able to make any more decisions," said Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the influential Legislative Black Caucus.
She said commissioners should not issue any more licenses.
Lawyers representing about half the growers said their clients have invested "hundreds of millions of dollars" in trying to get up and running.
Curio Wellness CEO Michael Bronfein raised $30 million to build a futuristic indoor growing operation in Lutherville-Timonium. Bronfein said his company passed inspection 11 weeks ago, is fully staffed and has been waiting for the commission's final approval since June.
"I sent my whole company bowling on Monday," Bronfein said. "There's nothing left to do."
The commission considered granting Curio a final license on July 5, but tabled the matter for reasons members would not describe publicly and Bronfein said regulators had never been raised before.
The next day, Gov. Larry Hogan put nine new commissioners on the 16-member panel. He reappointed one person.The remaining six members have unexpired terms.
Hogan also named a new chairman, Brian Lopez. Monday's meeting to give out final licenses is to be the first time the newly constituted committee meets publicly.
Maryland legalized medical marijuana in 2013, but the launch of the industry has been beset by delays and controversy.
Just one of the 15 firms picked last year has been permitted to start growing. Gail Rand, chief financial officer of ForwardGro in Anne Arundel County, said Friday that plants are growing but the company does not have a date when it expects marijuana to be available for sale to dispensaries.
George P. Merling is trying to open a dispensary in Cumberland. He said licensing more firms to grow marijuana is crucial.
"No one has any product," he said.
Van Wingerden, who is president of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, said some of the organization's members requested final inspection a month ago, but received it only last week.
Five growing companies told The Baltimore Sun they've been inspected and are ready for final approval when the cannabis commission meets Monday afternoon. Some, including Curio in Baltimore County, Holistic in Prince George's County and Harvest of Maryland in Washington County, said they are ready to start growing Monday afternoon. Green Leaf Medical and HMS Health, both in Frederick County, say they can have plants growing soon. Other companies declined to comment. Still others did not respond.
Officials at MaryMed said their Dorchester facility is ready to be inspected, even though the cannabis commission has denied their license over the conduct of former executives in other states. That denial is on administrative appeal.
Middleton, whose committee oversees medical marijuana regulation, said he hopes regulators will cut a break to firms "within striking distance" of being ready. But he said lawmakers will watch closely to make sure the commission moves on quickly if companies are not.
The cannabis commission invited applicants last week to explain why they needed more time, in case regulators decide to grant extensions.
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Jameson said he did not expect the commission to tell firms that did not meet the deadline Monday that they have lost out on the industry on Monday, nor to make an announcement that the commission was moving on just yet.
Companies that are next in line to launch a growing operation have been waiting for Monday's deadline for a year.
Maryland Cultivation and Processing, led by CEO Edward Weidenfeld, ranked No. 16 last year.
Asked whether his company was watching the Monday deadline, he replied: "Do bears live in the woods?"