The hold, communicated to the state’s 69 dispensaries on Oct. 7, was described as a “precautionary measure.” The commission ordered sellers to “quarantine” ForwardGro products, adding: “Follow up instructions will be forthcoming in the future.”
Three weeks later, patients and caregivers remain in the dark about what sort of hazard the fledgling regulatory agency might be trying to guard against.
ForwardGro was the first business in Maryland to obtain a full license to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes ahead of the industry’s launch last year. Maryland legalized marijuana for medical use in 2013, but the program’s rollout was beset by delays and controversies.
The hold on ForwardGro products is among the first demonstrations of how the commission will go about flexing its regulatory muscle.
The commission’s action comes after complaints this summer by former ForwardGro employees that the business was illegally using pesticides on its crops. The company has denied the allegations.
ForwardGro’s investors include well-connected political donors and former government officials. A partial owner of the firm is Gary Mangum, the chief executive of flower wholesaler Bell Nursery and a top donor to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
A commission spokeswoman, Jennifer White, declined to comment on the hold beyond a brief statement citing state regulations that authorize the agency to act if it “has reasonable suspicion of an operational failure or of conditions that create a likelihood of diversion, contamination, or a risk to the public health.”
“The Commission does not comment on active investigations,” White said in an email, “and this investigation is well underway.”
Commission Chairman Brian Lopez did not return repeated messages. Executive Director Joy Strand said the agency has issued other such quarantines, but she declined to say how many or how they were resolved.
“The MMCC can not comment on any investigations,” Strand said in an email.
The agency’s silence has left industry stakeholders perplexed.
“I don’t think it’s in the interest of patients or the industry not to be given specifics when a recall or a hold is issued,” said Mackie Barch, chair of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, of which ForwardGro is a member. “I’m just at a loss for why we’re not getting more clarity from the state.”
“From a patient perspective, it’s a little bit scary,” Barch said. “From a company perspective, if you have this happen, it’s so detrimental to your business. It kills you reputationally, but secondarily to that, it impacts your overall financial performance.”
Barch said dispensaries that sell ForwardGro products have also suffered.
“People have payrolls to meet, bills to pay, and when there’s this overhang of this unknown thing from the state, it cripples your business,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to ForwardGro or the other companies that depend on ForwardGro’s products.”
Wendy Bronfein, director of marketing at Curio Wellness, said her company didn’t have any ForwardGro products in its Timonium dispensary when the hold was issued. Still, she found the commission’s information blackout frustrating.
“Any and all players should be able to understand when the powers that be make a call on a company and product, and in this case calling a hold,” Bronfein said. “The lack of transparency is not productive.”
ForwardGro officials declined to say whether they know if the commission’s hold is related to the allegations of pesticide use, which they have called “an attack on our business.”
“We are cooperating with the Commission and working to learn more about the basis of the hold and to resolve this matter,” ForwardGro spokeswoman Vicki Bendure said in an email. “All ForwardGro’s products have passed pesticide testing by an independent, state-approved lab, and ForwardGro remains committed to providing patients in Maryland with quality medical cannabis.”
In sworn statements sent to legislators this summer, three former ForwardGro employees alleged that the company began using pesticides when initial crops showed signs of white powdery mold and other problems.
“They were just desperate,” one of the former employees, Evan Norris, said in an interview. “They were willing to try anything.”
Norris and the others say they complained to company officials before quitting this year and then making their allegations public.
This past spring, the General Assembly passed legislation making various pesticides legal for use by medical marijuana growers. At least some of the pesticides referred to by the former employees may be legal to use as a result.