Maryland's medical marijuana regulators approved final licenses for eight growing companies on Monday, allowing them to start cultivating the drug.
Several companies said they are ready to begin growing immediately, while others say they will take weeks to get started.
"Now, we have a real industry," said Cary Millstein, CEO of newly licensed grower Freestate Wellness in Howard County.
Until Monday, just one of the 15 selected firms had received final permission to start cultivating medical marijuana, which was first legalized in the state in 2013. Even at full capacity, one firm could not produce nearly enough to support 102 planned dispensaries.
Marijuana industry research group New Frontier estimates Maryland's market will be worth $221 million annually by 2021.
Millstein whooped as the commission approved his license, the first of several outbursts punctuating an otherwise staid government meeting in Harford County. Members of Temescal Wellness of Maryland's team fist-bumped — one man danced in his seat and started rapidly texting champagne bottle emojis — as the company's license to start growing in Baltimore was approved.
Some firms raced to meet Monday's deadline to become operational.
Curio Wellness of Baltimore County, which also received its license Monday, has been waiting for more than two months for final approval to bring plants into its nine high-tech, climate-controlled growing chambers in a 56,000-square-foot Timonium warehouse.
"As with any start up industry, you're bound to have bumps in the road," Curio CEO Michael Bronfein said in a recent interview.
The last-minute approvals follow the rocky start to an industry that has been beset by lawsuits, controversy and delays.
State courts are reviewing two cases that allege Maryland regulators improperly picked which companies could grow the drug, and state lawmakers have weighed issuing more licenses to make sure some go to firms owned by African-Americans, who don't own any of the 15 firms selected for preliminary growing licenses.
Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus, has called for the commission to stop issuing licenses.
Meanwhile, patients have been waiting. As of Monday, 12,000 people had signed up to become eligible for medical marijuana and 400 medical providers had signed up to recommend it to them.
Brian Lopez, the newly appointed chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, said there was still a lot work to be done to bring online the remaining growers and all of the marijuana processors and dispensaries hoping to open across the state. Only one dispensary, in Frederick, is licensed. More than 100 others are pending.
Monday was the deadline for growing companies to be operational, or risk losing their licenses. Nine companies are now permitted to grow medical marijuana. Another two underwent final inspections on Monday. The future of the remaining four is not clear.
The commission's executive director Patrick Jameson said the panel will weigh whether to grant extensions to those companies on Aug. 28.
Jameson said he thought having trouble with local zoning laws was a valid reason to seek an extension, but failing to raise capital or otherwise execute a business plan was not.
The commission also approved the state's first marijuana processors Monday, granting final licenses to four firms, three of which will also grow the drug.
Taking a tour of ForwardGro, one of the 15 pre-approved medical marijuana growers in the state. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)
The eight growers approved Monday join Anne Arundel County-based ForwardGro — the first company to receive a final license — and they represent a wide array of approaches to capitalize on the market.
Some plan to exclusively be wholesalers. Others have launched operations to grow and then process the drug. Others plan to open dispensaries that will sell specially branded products grown and processed in house.
In addition to Freestate Wellness and Temescal, the commission granted final growing licenses to Harvest of Maryland in Washington County, as well as to Green Leaf Medical and HMS Health, which are both in Fredrick County. Grower and processor licenses went to Curio Wellness in Timonium, Holistic in Prince George's County and Carroll County's Grassroots of Maryland, a company that has done business as Maryland Compassionate Care and Wellness. Blair Wellness of Worcester County also won a final license to process medical marijuana.
Jameson, the commission's executive director, said Grow West LLC and SunMed Growers received a final inspection from the state on Monday.