The medical-marijuana regulator was worried. None of the 15 companies slated to be approved to grow cannabis were from key swaths of southern and southeastern Maryland even though state law calls for “geographic diversity” in authorizing growers.
Commissioner Buddy Robshaw, a longtime law enforcement official in Prince George’s County who currently heads the Cheverly police force, persuaded his colleagues on the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to reconsider.
After a long debate, four of the five members of the commission’s grower subcommittee agreed to reverse their unanimous decision on who would get the coveted licenses, Robshaw said a week later at an Aug. 5 commission meeting. They passed over two higher-scoring applicants in favor of teams from underrepresented areas, one of which was Prince George’s.
“We wanted everybody who would substantially look at this to come back and say, ‘You know what, the commission did create geographic diversity when we licensed marijuana,’ ” Robshaw, who was appointed to the commission as a representative of the law enforcement community, told prospective marijuana entrepreneurs at the meeting.
A short time later, the full commission approved the shift.
The reshuffling has sparked complaints of unfair treatment and threats of legal action from companies that were denied licenses.It is the latest controversy to hit Maryland’s slow-to-launch medical-cannabis program, which also has been criticized for failing to award licenses to any cultivation companies owned by African Americans, despite a state mandate to create a racially diverse group of growers.
“We were dismayed by the outcome, and believe the commission’s decision and process were improper and fundamentally flawed,” said Pete Kadens, chief executive of Green Thumb Industries-Maryland, which initially was ranked in the top 15 but was denied a license to make room for Prince George’s-based Holistic Industries and Shore Natural Rx, of Worcester County.
GTI had planned to grow in Washington County, west of Frederick, and was the lowest-scoring of three applicants from that county that were originally in the top 15.The other demoted company was Maryland Cultivation and Processing, the lowest-ranked of three top-tier Frederick County applicants.
“This isn’t a game like ‘Jeopardy,’ ” said Ed Weidenfeld, a partner in Cultivation and Processing. “This is a very, very valuable award from the state that was promised to go to the most suitable [applicants].”
Both GTI and Maryland Cultivation and Processing have asked the commission to preserve documents related to the licensing decision, a preliminary step for litigation, and have joined a legislative push to expand the cap on grower’s licenses from 15 to 20.
They and other critics are questioning why the commission did not asktop-ranked applicants to relocate to underrepresented areas. Application materials advised companies that they did not need to list a location or demonstrate geographic diversity.
Robshaw said asking businesses to move locations would have violated the double-blind nature of the application review, in which the names of individuals that were part of each team were kept secret to avoid favoritism or the appearance of favoritism.
But commission staff did call and send letters to applicants during the evaluation process to find out where each company planned to locate.
The commission’s method for assessing geographic diversity has also come under scrutiny. Commissioners used a 2003 map that split the state into five agricultural regions, and focused on making sure that there were licensed growers in each of those regions, rather than in any specific county.
The initial selection of 15 growers included 10 companies based in the North-Central region, which stretches from Harford County to Washington County and includes Montgomery County (where no growers were approved) and the city of Baltimore (which has one). There was only one grower in the southern region, which includes Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties, one in the Western region and one on the South Eastern Shore.
In amending its list of growers, the commission passed over 18th-ranked Mazey Farms, which would have been the second licensed grower in the Western region, in order to include 20th-ranked Holistic Industries, located in Prince George’s, which became the second licensed grower in the Southern region.
“We’re disappointed that we didn’t get an award, and we are troubled that someone who received a lower score than us was moved ahead of us,” said Brett Scott, Mazey Farms’ general counsel.
The reshuffling left the majority of licensees located in the North Central region.
“Never would I have thought eight would be in just one region,” said Tangelina Loftin, a director at 19th-ranked Maryland Natural Treatment Solutions, which applied to grow marijuana in Caroline County, in the North Eastern Shore region. “I just thought more geographical diversity would have been achieved.”
Robshaw said the decision to elevate the ranks of a grower from Prince George’s “came down to southern Maryland was such a big chunk of the state.”
Weidenfeld, of Cultivation and Processing, accused the commission of boosting “the politically best connected” company. The Holistic Industries team includes former state Secretary of Health Nelson Sabatini and Ismael “Vince” Canales, the leader of the state Fraternal Order of Police union, who like Robshaw spent years working for the Prince George’s police department.
Chief executive Josh Genderson, who already grows medical marijuana in the District and whose uncle Jonathan Genderson won a license to process the drug in Montgomery County, hired top Maryland lobbyist Gerard Evans to help with the application. Through a friend, Josh Genderson met Henry P. Miller, a distant cousin of state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Henry Miller became an investor in Holistic and offered his farm in Prince George’s as the cultivation site.
Evans also helped secure a letter of recommendation for Holistic from the Senate president, whose legislative district includes parts of Prince George’s. The letter wasn’t included in application materials seen by commissioners.
Genderson said his company never tried to influence commissioners or lobby for the geographic realignment. He said his commitment to setting up shop in Prince George’s — a decision that ultimately made the difference in his winning a license — began long before the commission started doling out licenses.
“We absolutely did not,” Genderson said. “We put the best possible team together, put together an awesome application and just hoped for the best.”
Officials with Shore Natural Rx, the other company that was boosted into the top 15 in the name of geographic diversity, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Robshaw said the reshuffling was meant only to spread out growers in underrepresented parts of the state. He says he didn’t know who was behind Holistic and never spoke to its lobbyist or employees.
“The only information I ever had about them was a number, and we learned that they were in Prince George’s County,” Robshaw said. “There wasn’t any conspiracy to find out who these people are.”