Week in Review: Cracks in Massachusetts MMJ Application Process Overshadow Progress

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By Chris Walsh

All is not well in Massachusetts.

Concerns about the state’s dispensary program are mounting amid revelations that several companies chosen to receive licenses submitted misleading, false or incomplete information to the state.

Massachusetts officials also are facing accusations of favoritism. And the state’s health department hasn’t released many details about its scoring system for applicants, so those that weren’t chosen have been left in the dark.

The controversies are generating more splashy headlines than the substantial progress Massachusetts is making with MMJ.

In light of these criticisms, the health department announced this week that it will force finalists to submit sworn statements about the truthfulness of their applications, and it plans to meet with local government officials about possible next steps.

Separately, the state’s House speaker has called for an investigation into the matter, and other lawmakers are demanding that the state re-do the whole application process.

Implementing a medical marijuana law is rarely a smooth process, and accusations of unfairness and bias are common. Sometimes there’s fire behind the smoke, and sometimes it’s just sour grapes.

But it’s unusual to see prominent lawmakers demanding investigations and companies making significant errors in their applications.

And the mistakes are not simple typos. Several companies that won licenses – including one run by Andrew DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center in California – claimed to have met with and gained the support of local and state officials, when in fact it seems they did not.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the entire process is now in doubt, and we’re left with some important questions:

  • Just how in-depth was the application process after all? It’s unclear how much information the state verified and how much it simply assumed to be true – or what information officials decided should be confirmed at a later date.
  • Was the state clear about how applicants should chronicle and document their public support? It’s one thing if companies purposely misled the selection committee. But there’s a gray area between getting “official” support and getting the strong impression of support in casual conversations. “Many public officials were unaware that their conversations were going to wind up in print in applications, so they feel upset that their names were used in the applications,” said Kris Krane of 4Front Advisors, which helped four groups win licenses.
  • Did the state rush the process? Officials took about five months to whittle down the initial pool of applicants to the finalists. During the last two months, the state conducted an in-depth review of 100 applicants that made it to the final phase of the process. This seems like ample time for vetting – but it was not enough to take a deep dive into such a large number of applications.
  • Were checks and balances incorporated into the selection process to prevent those with deep connections from gaining an unfair advantage? This was a concern from the start, as Massachusetts is still considered a good ol’ boys club. The selection committee reportedly didn’t see the names of people involved when scoring applications. But the fact that so many individuals with local connections (including former Congressman William Delahunt) received licenses certainly looks questionable from the outside.

Whether we get answers to these questions remains to be seen, though the health department will reportedly meet with applicants that didn’t receive licenses to explain the decision. The department also emphasized this week that the licensing decisions are not yet final – companies still have to pass an inspection program and verify some information in their applications.

But a handful of groups that didn’t win licenses are reportedly preparing to file lawsuits claiming that the selection committee was bias and that the department didn’t follow its own rules.

“Obviously there are two schools of thought on where things should go from here,” said Massachusetts attorney Dick Evans. “Teams that were awarded provisional licenses are eager to move forward and don’t want to see the legislature clog things up.”

The groups that weren’t selected, however, “are in no hurry to see their successful competitors move forward, and who knows – maybe the legislature can build a better program and open it to many more entrepreneurs,” Evans said.

To be sure: Most of those chosen for licenses are no doubt well-qualified individuals who will start and run very successful, professional dispensaries in Massachusetts. So take nothing away from them.

But it’s unfortunate that Massachusetts is experiencing these problems.

It seemed lawmakers put a lot of thought into structuring the program to avoid the problems seen in states with little or no regulations.

In the end, however, it’s all about the execution and transparency, and in that regard Massachusetts is coming up short.

Chris Walsh is editor of Marijuana Business Daily