Report: ‘No Evidence of Bias’ in Awards of Medical Cannabis Licenses

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The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, beset by allegations about improprieties in the way it awarded grower and processor licenses last summer, released a report Thursday night showing that there was “no evidence of bias or undue influence in the 2019 license application review process.”

The 40-page report on the investigation into the allegations — including suggestions that former state Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D), who is headed to federal prison for accepting bribes related to cannabis industry legislation in Annapolis, sought to influence the awarding of licenses — was conducted by the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. It was led by Gregg L. Bernstein, the former Baltimore City state’s attorney.

Brian P. Lopez, chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

The process of launching and expanding the medical marijuana business in Maryland has been fraught with complaints over racial bias, influence-peddling and lack of fairness. A second round of license applications for growers and processors was mandated by the General Assembly in 2018, in order to expand minority participation in the state’s medical cannabis program. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission was tasked with awarding up to four new medical cannabis grower licenses and 10 new medical cannabis processor licenses.

The investigation debunks several of the complaints that were leveled against the commission during last year’s second round. Specifically the law firm offered five key takeaways from its avenues of inquiry:

  • That former commission executive director Joy Strand did not have any family member who was affiliated with any license applicant in 2019, despite allegations that surfaced in civil litigation and in a letter from the Legislative Black Caucus. “We found no evidence to support this allegation and credible evidence to the contrary,” the investigators wrote.
  • There was no evidence that any license applicants had improper communications with Morgan State University officials and board members who were tasked with evaluating the applications, or with Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission staff or commissioners. “Isolated and inconsequential contacts occurred between applicants and individuals at MSU, but none were improper and only one occurred during the time period when MSU was reviewing applications,” the law firm wrote.
  • At least three people associated with Morgan State were affiliated with entities that applied for grower or processor licenses: Shelonda Stokes, a member of the MSU Board of Regents; former state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City), a Morgan State employee; and Ugonna Anyadike, a technical support specialist at MSU. “These affiliations arguably violated a provision of the Commission’s implementing legislation designed to avoid conflicts of interest for third-party evaluators; however, we found no evidence that these applications were scored more, or less, favorably by either the MSU evaluators or Commission staff,” Bernstein’s team wrote.
  • Applicants’ affiliations with Morgan State were not brought to the attention of the commission.
  • Investigators found “no evidence that former Delegate Cheryl Glenn improperly influenced the license application review process,” even though she pled guilty to receiving bribes from a government informant that she believed were designed to obtain her assistance on behalf of particular license applicants. “Although these revelations were troubling, Delegate Glenn’s communications with MMCC during the 2019 license application review were quite limited, and we found no evidence that she improperly influenced the review process,” the law firm wrote.

The law firm conducted its investigation over a six-month period, reviewing thousands of pages of documents and interviewing more than 50 individuals, including representatives of grower and processor license applicants; members of the commission and staff; evaluators, employees, and board members at Morgan State; and individuals who responded to a hotline that was set up to provide information regarding allegations of bias or undue influence in the application process.

“We did not investigate the outcome of the process or the methodology utilized in scoring and ranking the applications, nor did we assess the merit of any particular application or analyze the evaluation criteria,” the law firm’s report says. “Additionally, we did not investigate the accuracy of applicants’ representations about ownership
and control, including minority ownership…”

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is expected to review the investigation findings at its next meeting on Oct. 1. With state revenues plummeting due to COVID-19, lawmakers are likely to push to legalize recreational marijuana in the state next year.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.