By Omar Sacirbey
When Hannah Byron was brought on in early 2015 to lead the newly created Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, she had no staff and only a first draft of proposed regulations for the state’s newest industry.
Since then, Byron has put together a team of bureaucrats who helped her craft a set of regulations that attempt to balance safety with business friendliness, and she streamlined the application process for entrepreneurs seeking licenses.
The result? Maryland received an absolute flood of applications: 1,080 in total, including 800 for the 109 available dispensary licenses and nearly 150 for 15 cultivation permits the state plans to award.
The overwhelming number of applications forced state reviewers to extend the review process and delay announcing winners of licenses from mid-January to this summer.
Byron, who officially steps down on Jan. 27, spoke with Marijuana Business Daily to talk about the licensing process, what makes for a winning application, and the climate for cannabis companies in Maryland.
Why did the commission extend the application review period?
What folks need to understand, and I’m sure they do, is that the volume of applications was very robust.
We want to make sure that our subject matter experts who are reviewing the applications have the time required to review twice to three times the number we thought were going to be reviewed. And we want to make sure that there’s ample time to do the review carefully, because they are 160-page applications.
What was it about Maryland that attracted so many applicants?
I’ve heard a number of things. Industry folks felt that Maryland’s location and its proximity to Washington DC were important. We have been getting commendations for our regulations, in that the industry felt they were well done.
As far as the dispensary applications, one of the things that we were a little bit surprised about were the number of applicants who chose to apply to multiple locations. That really drove that number up.
What will application reviewers look for? What makes for a strong application?
I’m not a voting member, but the subject matter experts will be looking for real quality applications, and looking for state-of-the-art processes and procedures, and quality staff training. I think they have a lot of qualified applicants to review. I think there’s a great potential for having the very best in Maryland.
What do industry people like about the regulations?
I think folks felt that our application established a very level playing field between applicants, because we had limited word counts. It wasn’t one of these one-thousand, two-thousand page applications.
Applicants felt that the regulations were clear and that the way they were synced-up with the applications was clear.
How would you describe the business climate in Maryland for medical marijuana businesses?
There’s been an incredible amount of support from the counties throughout Maryland. Some have already approved zoning for potential growers and processors and dispensaries. We’ve seen a lot of support from local governments throughout the state.
Were there any state models you drew on to set up the Maryland system?
What we looked at was what didn’t work in other states. But we also had a road map from the General Assembly.
There had been legislation that had been passed that had some parameters that we had to include by statute. We wanted to be unique as well in having some elements that some other states didn’t include, with our quality assurance and testing and other things that you didn’t see in some other states.
What were some of the mistakes that other states made?
I don’t remember everything, but it had to do with how their background checks were conducted, some of the security requirements and testing.
What makes Maryland’s program unique?
We’ve been told that our physician and patient registries are very streamlined and simple to use, so we’re hoping we don’t have roadblocks. We wanted to make sure that was one of the things that was included.
What do marijuana businesses need to do to be successful in Maryland?
Many of the applicants have been doing a really good job in educating local government officials and local economic development officials in the areas where they would like to set up their businesses. And part of that is being able to articulate what’s in the regulations, and the security, and the training, and all of the various components that are required.
I think they’ve taken an extra step to ensure that they’re going to be part of the community, that they’re going to bring jobs, that they’re going to work closely with the community. I really think that the industry itself has done a great job in articulating those kinds of things to locally-elected officials and the community at large.
What do you think will be the most important priorities for the new commissioner?
There are a couple of major processes and initiatives that are going to have to be set up, and that includes issuing the first preliminary approvals, and setting up the processes for the stage two approval processes, which have to be clearly articulated.
Setting up the compliance unit and training the compliance officers. Making sure the background check processes are in place and building the budget to be able to hire the staff that will be required. Those are at the big priorities for my successor. (Editor’s note: a successor has not yet been named.)
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]