Michigan medical marijuana board inundated with applications before deadline

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There was a mad scramble at the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board meeting Thursday, as about 50 unlicensed medical marijuana businesses have just 10 days before the state orders them to shut down.

With applications for 118 marijuana business licenses up for consideration, including many of the dispensaries facing a March 31 deadline, the board faced its biggest agenda since it began meeting last May. And it was a bittersweet moment for the five-member board, which will most likely be abolished on April 30 in favor of a new state agency — the Marijuana Regulatory Agency — making the decisions on who will and won't get a license.

"I've had enough, to be honest with you," said former Speaker of the House Rick Johnson, R-Leroy, who is the chairman of the board. "But what we've done to this point is create a good, solid foundation."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order earlier this month to abolish the board and have the same state bureaucracy make regulatory and licensing decisions for both the ongoing medical marijuana and the recreational marijuana market, which is expected to come online sometime early next year.

"I've been involved in this type of stuff for a long time and sometimes it's political and some of the time, it's not," Johnson added. "Every new governor who comes in has their ability to do things the way they want to do it."

The board has operated in fits and starts, with some meetings having only a handful of licenses to considerand others, like Thursday's meeting, jam-packed. Whitmer has said the new agency will make the licensing decisions more efficient and consistent.

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The five-member, politically appointed board, which has been criticized for the slow pace of approving licenses, shrunk to four members earlier this month when David Lamontaine resigned from the board. But board member Donald Bailey, a retired Michigan State Police officer, said there was plenty of blame to go around for delays in licensing decisions.

He pointed to an applicant who first submitted an application in August 2018 and didn't supply all the necessary information to the state until January.

"One of the culprits is the applicant, not us," he said. "Anyone who wants to complain that we haven't done our due diligence can look at this applicant. There's enough blame to go around for everyone."

Andrew Brisbo, director of the Bureau of Marijuana Regulation, said the looming deadline for unlicensed marijuana businesses to shut down was the key to the lengthy meeting, which lasted for more than three hours.

"Obviously, we had a lot of responses from applicants with the March 31 deadline," he said. "That's usually a motivating factor to get people to send us the things we need."

On March 31, the unlicensed businesses — about 50, with the vast majority being dispensaries — will get cease and desist letters from the state and potential follow-up from law enforcement if they don't shut down.

"There's always the potential that there could be criminal follow-up with someone who is operating unlawfully," Brisbo said.

Since beginning to consider applications for growers, processors, transporters, testing facilities and dispensaries in July, the board has approved 148 licenses. Of those, 110 businesses  — 35 growers, 11 processors, 58 dispensaries, four testing labs and five transporters — have paid their state regulatory assessments and actually been awarded licenses.

Another 91 license applications were given pre-approval status Thursday, including a dispensary tied to VB Chesaning, a large marijuana grow operation in Chesaning that is owned by Benedetto and Vincenzo Celani, the sons of prominent metro Detroit businessman Tom Celani of Bloomfield Hills, who has interests in casinos and owns the Michigan Lottery Freedom Hill Amphitheatre. One of the partners in the VP dispensary is M. Scott Bowen, the Michigan Lottery Commissioner from 2008-17.

The deadline for unlicensed dispensaries to get approved for a state license has been a moving target since September. In order to ensure there was enough access to products for medical marijuana patients, that deadline moved to October, then to Dec. 15, Jan. 1 and finally March 31. Now that there are 55 dispensaries operating in the state and another 13 that were approved for licenses on Thursday, the state believes there are enough facilities around the state to accommodate the nearly 293,000 medical marijuana patients in Michigan.

So the March 31 deadline is not expected to be extended again.

 
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