MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission (AMCC) voted on Thursday to impose a stay on the issuance of licenses that were awarded on August 10.
With the stay in place, applicants who were awarded a license on August 10 have no current obligation to pay license fees, and applicants who were denied the award of license on August 10 have no current obligation to submit a request for an investigative hearing. Additionally, licenses awarded on August 10 will not be issued on September 7, as previously scheduled.
"I am confident in the process that the Commission has used to evaluate applications and select licensees," AMCC Vice Chairman Sam Blakemore said. "Nonetheless, I welcome reasonable discussions with interested parties about the process as directed by the Court and I am hopeful that we will soon move forward with our program."
This stay will remain in effect until lifted by the Commission. Once the stay is lifted, the licensing process will resume.
After the meeting, AMCC Chair Rex Vaughn told reporters that whether the same list of companies that received licenses on August 10 would remain the same is yet to be seen.
Vaughn also said the scores and evaluations used by AMCC to rank companies to award licenses wouldn't change.
"We'll not walk that back. We're not doing that all over again," Vaughn said. "The scoring will not change. The evaluations will not change. There may be a little more discussion among the commission members but the scoring itself will not change. We're not having any more evaluators of that nature."
AMCC has their next court hearing on September 6 in Montgomery County Circuit Court over alleged Open Meetings Act violations for their use of an executive session at their August 10 meeting. AMCC attorneys deny the allegations. The commission initially awarded licenses in June but eventually voided those awards over concerns about "tabulation errors" in the scoring process to rank companies. The commission's second round of awards happened at the August 10 meeting. It remains to be seen if they'll re-award licenses for a third time in the coming months.
Jim Barton, a spokesperson for a group of companies that received licenses called the Alabama Medical Cannabis Industry Consortium, said the stay issued by the commission at their Thursday meeting wasn't a surprise.
"No surprises today. Another delay caused by applicants that are not happy with the outcome of the application process," Barton told 1819 News. "Rather than filing for an investigative hearing before the AMCC to challenge their scores (as allowed by the regulations), they continue to file lawsuits seeking to overturn the entire process, such as the Open Meetings Act challenge and their latest lawsuit alleging a breach of the Alabama Administrative Act. Why won't the losing parties file for an investigative hearing? I believe when you dig into it and review the losing applicants' scores released by the AMCC, it becomes clear that the losing applicants filing these lawsuits will not file for an investigative hearing because there is no real path to a license due to their ranks/scores."
Alabama Always, one of the plaintiffs in the Open Meetings Act lawsuit, finished 26 out of 38 in the scoring for an integrated facility license. Five were awarded on August 10
"In the end the constant delays only hurt the Alabamians the program was designed to help," Barton said.
Will Somerville, an attorney for Alabama Always, said earlier in the week that his client was "told at the very beginning if you're in a position to begin cultivation within 60 days, if you're in a position to get production ramped up quickly, so you can provide medicine to people's bodies as quickly as possible then you will be in the best position to get a license. Well, they did that. They spent a lot of money to do that, and then this irrational scoring process saw them ranked number 25. They want a license, and they continue to think with a fair process, they've got a really good chance of getting a license because they're really one of the five best applicants."
However, the lawsuits aren't just from companies scoring poorly on the commission's grading system. Verano Alabama, LLC, the only company initially awarded an integrated facility license in June that didn't get a license the second time around in August, filed a separate lawsuit against AMCC in Montgomery County Circuit Court recently and asked the court to reverse the commission's decision in August to void Verano's license awarded in June. Verano Alabama is a venture of the multi-state cannabis company Verano Holdings.
Verano Alabama received the highest ranking from AMCC's evaluators in both award rounds but didn't receive a license on August 10.
James Leventis, executive vice president of legal, regulatory & government affairs for Verano Alabama's parent company, Verano Holdings, told 1819 News on Thursday that "Almost every state that does this in the last decade has sought to issue licenses based on objective, blind scoring through applications where the company's names are scrubbed, the executives' names are scrubbed. You're basing the score based on their experience and how well they'll come in and hit the ground running day one."
"The biggest messes that I see state-by-state are the ones that deviate from that process and begin to issue licenses based on personal or political preference of individuals," Leventis said. "There have been issues with licensing processes before, but I foresee that if this continues and they continue to illegally void, re-do the process and re-award licenses, take a third, fourth, fifth, twentieth bite at the apple… you're going to have a Georgia situation where we're sitting here for years and the patients are unable to get medicine that they need for their conditions. We went into court for a very tactical, reasonable resolution to this to set the process back to where it legally sat in June with the award of licenses to the most qualified applicants and that's what we're seeking here."
Leventis said, "The commission awarded licenses. They stayed that process and then they voided it and re-awarded licenses. They did that all under a very public context of 'We found all these tabulation errors. We need to fix this so that the correct applicants are being awarded licenses based on the correct scores.' Verano Alabama's score went up sixteen points and we continue to be today the top scoring applicant. Our score only improved. Our margins only improved."
"It appears to have been a trojan horse to take a second bite at the apple and award licenses based on personal preference. Unfortunately, that's what appears to have happened and we're seeking to undo that and reset this process to where it legally should have been," Leventis said.
To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.
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