Despite missing a key state deadline earlier this month, three more medical marijuana growers won final licenses on Monday to cultivate the drug.
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission voted to grant approval for three of the five companies that had missed the deadline to be operational by Aug. 15. The other two firms were granted formal extensions.
"We're very excited that there were no more delays," said Jake Van Wingerden, chair of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Association, the growers trade group, and president of one of the three growers to get their licenses on Monday.
The decisions come as marijuana regulators have faced criticism for how they selected and approved companies to launch Maryland's medical marijuana growing industry.
None of the 15 companies picked a year ago are owned by African-Americans, even though a state law required commissioners to actively seek diversity when awarding licenses.
Nine of those initial winners met the state's one-year deadline to be ready to start growing. Monday's decision, made at a meeting in Bel Air, means that all but one of the 15 initial winners are on track to be first suppliers in the market, which the research group New Frontier estimates will be worth $221 million within four years
The Legislative Black Caucus has been pressing for ways to expand the lucrative growing industry to include African-Americans, who make up about a third of the state's population.
Black Caucus Chairwoman Cheryl Glenn said Monday's decision to press ahead with companies who missed the deadline brings even more urgency to her cause.
"The deadlines were very clear in terms in what the expectations were," said Glenn, a Democratic state delegate from Baltimore. "Our frustration is that these companies will already have a head start on any African-American who eventually will get a license."
General Assembly leaders have declined a request from the Black Caucus to call a special session to expand the medical marijuana industry, citing two main reasons — House Speaker Michael E. Busch's emergency liver transplant and the fact Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a diversity study to be conducted. That study is a prerequisite to issuing marijuana licenses that take into account an applicant's race.
Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have said they will support emergency legislation to expand the industry when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Glenn said the caucus has not given up.
"I have something that I believe will be an offer that the leadership can't refuse," she said, but declined to elaborate.
Glenn said that waiting past this fall would send a bad message.
"That's putting African-Americans further behind the eight ball," she said. "That's putting race relations on even more precarious ground."
The companies that won final approval Monday to grow the drug are SunMed Growers in Cecil County, Shore Naturals in Worcester County and Grow West MD in Garrett County.
Van Wingerden of the growers trade group is also president of SunMed, which is near his Tidal Creek Growers, a commercial nursery and greenhouse operation in Earleville.
The two companies to earn extensions are Kind Therapeutics in Washington County and Doctors Orders in Dorchester County.
The only company to not win a final license or an extension is MaryMed of Dorchester County. In May, the commission announced it did not intend to award a final license to the company, citing concerns with former employees of its parent company. MaryMed has said it is appealing that decision.
The commission also granted final approval to two processors — Chesapeake Alternatives in Queen Anne County and Pro Green Medical in Frederick County.Maryland's medical marijuana program has been among the slowest in the country to launch. First approved in 2013, it has been beset by controversy and legal challenges. Two lawsuits challenging how the licenses were awarded are still pending in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Regulators approved the first medical pot operation in May. ForwardGro of Anne Arundel County has said it expects its first harvest to be ready sometime after Labor Day.'
So far, just one dispensary has been approved to sell the drug to patients. More than 12,000 people have registered to use marijuana, though they must first receive a recommendation from a physician.