Maryland’s medical cannabis program finds itself in the center of two brewing controversies that have halted the awarding of licenses and raised new questions about whether minority-owned businesses will get a fair shot at a handful of potentially lucrative licenses.
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has been no stranger to controversy and court wrangling almost since its inception and issuing of the state program’s first licenses. A meeting Thursday at which the commission was expected to award four grower and 10 processor licenses was turned on its head after a Montgomery County judge issued a temporary restraining order requested by a Gaithersburg company alleging its application was unfairly nullified.
Jume Akinaggbe and her company, Remileaf LLC, claim that a flawed application submission process led to the commission extending the deadline to June 24. At the heart of the legal battle are claims that Remileaf was penalized because the commission’s website failed to work properly for a large number of applicants.
Antoine Pritchett, who unsuccessfully applied for a grower license, described a tortured process for filling his application for an African American-owned facility he hoped to base in Brandywine in Prince George’s County.
“The application process for me was mind-wrecking,” said Pritchett, owner of Ani’s Love. “On the day of the application being due originally, I went to put the application in and it kept failing. It would tell me it worked but then would say it was incomplete.”
Pritchett, who was not part of the case seeking a temporary restraining order, said he was informed prior to the Thursday commission meeting that his company was not among the highest-ranking applicants.
The failure of the commission’s website led the commission to require Pritchett to re-do his application and submit it online using a cloud-based file service.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” said Pritchett. “Who’s going to look through all that? Sure enough, a couple days later they sent me a message that Dropbox isn’t going to work and I’d have to do the whole process over again.”
Pritchett’s experience tracks with court filings that are a part of Gaithersurg-based Remileaf LLC’s request for a temporary restraining order in Montgomery County Circuit.
In court records, the company says it filed its application properly and on time in May.
The company was later notified that it, along with others, would have to resubmit the application because other applicants had issues with the commission website or improperly redacted portions of their applications. Despite meeting the initial deadline and paying the $4,000 application fees, Remileaf was told its May filing for a growing and processing license was voided.
The company attempted to refile the application in person on June 24. In court filings, Akinaggbe said she arrived just before 5 p.m. but shortly after 5 p.m. an official with the commission told her the filing was late. Joy Strand, then the executive director of the commission, told Akinaggbe to submit a letter appealing the decision.
That appeal request, filed on June 25, was not replied to until days before the commission was to meet to award the new licenses, according to court records filed by Remileaf’s attorney, Timothy Maloney, a former legislator who is now a partner at Greenbelt-based Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Ronald Rubin issued the temporary restraining order before 7 p.m. on Wednesday. That order remains in effect until Oct. 7, six days after the medical cannabis commission will be restructured as part of the same 2018 law that expanded the number of licenses.
Maloney declined to comment on the case.
Brian Lopez, chairman of the commission, defended the disqualification of Remileaf.
“We feel strongly in our position that the applicant would be disqualified, and we think we did the application the right way,” said Lopez.
Lopez made no mention of the temporary restraining order as he announced the delay in awarding preliminary license approvals. Instead, he justified the actions by noting that the commission had not completed its investigations into the top tier applicants. He also noted that members of the Legislative Black Caucus had raised concerns about the number of licenses going to minority-owned businesses, particularly those owned by African Americans in Maryland.
As part of the process, the commission requested additional information from top tier applicants. Investigators then will verify that the applications filed with the commission and already scored and ranked are accurate, particularly as it pertains to statements regarding minority owners.
Lopez acknowledged that the commission set an aggressive schedule when it approved the rankings two weeks ago and provided notification of rankings just days before the commission was to make its preliminary awards. The requests for additional information did not provide the 14 days required by law for applicants to respond.
“It became apparent we had too many issues to overcome,” Lopez said in explaining the decision to delay the awards. That delay, he said, would have occurred even without a judge putting a halt to the process.