Of­fi­cial de­fends Md. pot board

Cannabis Com­mis­sion mem­ber de­nies group was po­lit­i­cally swayed

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Dresser

A key fig­ure on the Mary­land Med­i­cal Cannabis Com­mis­sion de­fended the panel’s de­ci­sions on who re­ceived li­censes to grow mar­i­juana for med­i­cal use amid ac­cu­sa­tions that po­lit­i­cally well-con­nected ap­pli­cants were se­lected over bet­ter-qual­i­fied com­pa­nies.

Chev­erly Po­lice Chief Harry “Buddy” Rob­shaw, who chairs the grow­ers sub­com­mit­tee of the com­mis­sion, said the dif­fer­ences in the scores of the top ap­pli­cants were very small. The top 15 ap­pli­cants — which re­ceived pre­lim­i­nary grow­ers li­censes — were “about in­ter­change­able,” he said.

“They re­ally were very close up to [No.] 30 or 40,” Rob­shaw said.

The com­mis­sion has not re­leased the scores, which guided of­fi­cials as they picked which com­pa­nies would re­ceive the po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive pre­lim­i­nary li­censes to grow and process mar­i­juana.

In a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view, Rob­shaw ex­plained his sub­com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sions for the first time. The panel’s ac­tions have be­come the tar­get of blis­ter­ing crit­i­cism from the Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus and dis­ap­pointed ap­pli­cants, two of whom have filed a law­suit against the com­mis­sion. An­other said this week it was con­sid­er­ing le­gal ac­tion.

Rob­shaw’s com­ments shed light on how

Mary­land chose win­ners and losers in the early steps to­ward launch­ing what could be an im­por­tant new in­dus­try. Some project Mary­land’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram will grow to gen­er­ate $129 mil­lion in an­nual busi­ness.

The pro­gram was cre­ated to al­le­vi­ate the suf­fer­ing of peo­ple with such con­di­tions as can­cer, epilepsy and au­toim­mune dis­eases. But con­tro­versy over the se­lec­tion process threat­ens to de­lay that re­lief.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate it’s be­come so con­vo­luted and Mary­land pa­tients are go­ing to wait longer for medicine than about any other state,” said Kate Bell, leg­isla­tive coun­sel for the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Project.

Bell said she doesn’t see what the com­mis­sion gains by not re­leas­ing the scores as­signed to ap­pli­cants by re­searchers at Tow­son Uni­ver­sity.

Rob­shaw, a for­mer Prince Ge­orge’s County po­lice of­fi­cer, de­fended the five­mem­ber grow­ers sub­com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sions, which in­cluded re­plac­ing two high­er­scor­ing com­pa­nies with lower-scor­ing ap­pli­cants to achieve greater geo­graphic di­ver­sity among the pre­lim­i­nary li­cense win­ners. The 16-mem­ber com­mis­sion rat­i­fied the sub­com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion in Au­gust.

He said the panel was guided by “the idea of fair­ness, but not fair­ness to the peo­ple in­volved, but fair­ness to the process it­self.”

The sub­com­mit­tee orig­i­nally ap­proved 15 li­censes on July 27 based solely on the rank­ings ar­rived at by Tow­son’s Re­gional Eco­nomic Stud­ies In­sti­tute, Rob­shaw said. Re­searchers did not know the iden­ti­ties of the ap­pli­cants. But he said that when the sub­com­mit­tee learned in the fol­low­ing days where each of the com­pa­nies planned to lo­cate, they real­ized the ge­o­graph­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion did not meet the com­mis­sion’s goals.

The com­mis­sion had de­cided to use a map of the state’s agri­cul­tural zones to guide its de­ci­sions, Rob­shaw said. Go­ing by that map, one re­gion of the state was left out — the Lower East­ern Shore.

That map showed Anne Arun­del County, which had an ap­pli­cant in the top 15, in the South­ern Mary­land zone. But Rob­shaw said the com­mit­tee did not think Anne Arun­del counted as South­ern Mary­land.

Rob­shaw said the sub­com­mit­tee went down the list on July 29 and — not know­ing the iden­ti­ties of the com­pa­nies — found an­other ap­pli­cant in the South­ern Mary­land zone. This one, ranked 20th, was from Prince Ge­orge’s County.

The sub­com­mit­tee el­e­vated that com­pany, Holis­tic In­dus­tries LLC, to No. 14. It bumped the 21st-ranked ap­pli­cant to No. 15 to rep­re­sent the Lower Shore. And it de­moted the No. 8 and No. 12 ap­pli­cants.

“It was the only fair way to ac­com­plish that task,” Rob­shaw said. He added that the com­mit­tee “didn’t want to go too far down the list” but felt there wasn’t much dif­fer­ence in qual­ity be­tween No. 21 and the orig­i­nal 15.

The el­e­va­tion of Holis­tic raised sus­pi­cions be­cause it is a po­lit­i­cally well­con­nected com­pany rep­re­sented by the state’s high­est-paid lob­by­ist, Ger­ard E. Evans. Its in­vestors in­clude Evans’ son-in­law and a dis­tant cousin of Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Among the ap­pli­cants that sus­pect pol­i­tics tainted the se­lec­tion is the one orig­i­nally ranked No. 17. That com­pany, Mary­land Nat­u­ral Treat­ment So­lu­tions, was passed over even though it had of­fered to move from its pre­ferred Caro­line County lo­ca­tion to any­where the com­mis­sion pre­ferred. Com­mis­sion staff dis­re­garded that of­fer.

Ross Mor­reale, a con­sul­tant and at­tor­ney for Mary­land Nat­u­ral Treat­ment, called the com­mis­sion’s process a “sham” and said his com­pany is con­sid­er­ing a law­suit.

“It’s like they’re mak­ing the rules up as they go to ben­e­fit them and their pals,” Mor­reale said. “We think it’s out­ra­geous. Peo­ple should prob­a­bly go to jail over this.”

Rob­shaw, who is not paid for his com­mis­sion work, said he doesn’t know Miller. He said that while he knew Evans through a par­ent-teacher as­so­ci­a­tion in the 1980s, he hasn’t spo­ken to the lob­by­ist for at least 20 years. Rob­shaw in­sisted that no out­side in­flu­ence af­fected the choices.

“I’m not go­ing to hurt my rep­u­ta­tion in the com­mu­nity by help­ing some­body I don’t know,” he said.

Rob­shaw said nei­ther he nor other com­mis­sion mem­bers knew of Mary­land Nat­u­ral Treat­ment’s of­fer to move. He de­fended the de­ci­sion to with­hold that in­for­ma­tion, say­ing state reg­u­la­tions re­quired that lo­ca­tion be spec­i­fied in the ap­pli­ca­tion.

If Mary­land Nat­u­ral Treat­ment sues, it will be the third ap­pli­cant to take the state to court. No. 8 Mary­land Cul­ti­va­tion and Pro­cess­ing and No. 12 GTI Mary­land have al­ready filed a law­suit, charg­ing the com­mis­sion broke its own rules.

Lanny Davis, an at­tor­ney for GTI, said there is no rule re­quir­ing an ap­pli­cant to iden­tify a pro­posed site. GTI’s CEO, Pete Kadens, called the process “im­proper” and said “pol­i­tics were in­volved.”

Rob­shaw said com­mit­tee mem­bers knew their de­ci­sion to reshuf­fle the rank­ings could bring a le­gal chal­lenge.

“I don’t think we were naive to the idea, but I don’t think we were wor­ried that would be a pos­si­bil­ity,” he said.

The Gen­eral Assem­bly’s black cau­cus has also threat­ened to take ac­tion. Its mem­bers are con­sid­er­ing hold­ing up the fi­nal is­suance of li­censes be­cause none of the grower li­censes were awarded to com­pa­nies with African-Amer­i­can own­er­ship.

The com­mis­sion has said it re­ceived le­gal ad­vice that it could not take the race of ap­pli­cants into con­sid­er­a­tion.

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