PRINCESS ANNE, Md. -- Somerset County could soon be home to one of Maryland's first medical marijuana facilities.
Wellness Farms LLC wants to build a warehouse in Princess Anne where it will grow plants indoors and process the marijuana, said founder and CEO Jason Walsh. The company plans to house the 20,000-square-foot facility near Westover.
“We are what I like to say shovel ready," Walsh said. "We have legal control of our land and have approved zoning. We’re fully funded. We are majority owned by Maryland residents. We’re not a bunch of out-of-towners trying to utilize the Maryland system and take the taxes out."
The company, which set up a headquarters in Baltimore in August, hasn't settled on a site for a dispensary, he said.
Wellness Farms has gotten off to an auspicious start, lining up $7 million in capital, according to Walsh, and receiving a letter of support last month from Somerset County Commissioners. But the biggest hurdle lies ahead: getting awarded one of 15 grower licenses being made available for the first time in Maryland this fall.
Dozens of companies are expected to compete. Applications are due Nov. 6 and will be reviewed by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which plans to release a scoring and ranking of applicants as early as mid-January. Once issued a license, each applicant has up to one year to be ready to do business.
Walsh and his partners in the venture are not new to navigating state medical marijuana programs, though.
Wellness' executive team includes Evan Anderson, owner of 14er Holistics, a medical and recreational marijuana dispensary in Boulder, Colorado. Walsh founded the Illinois Cannabis Alliance, a coalition of growers and dispenser, and he is behind a commercial marijuana farm near his home in a Chicago suburb. He also is tied to a company with a caregiver license in Michigan.
Walsh, a longtime business consultant, said he became interested in the potential medical benefits of medical marijuana after seriously injuring his back in a fall off his roof in 2010. He was prescribed narcotics but began investigating alternatives.
He doesn't use marijuana himself, he said.
The owner of the property is currently listed as CleanBay Biofuels, a renewable energy firm that aims to turn spent chicken eggshells into cosmetic and food additives.
Wellness Farms would likely open with 15 to 25 employees, but could expand to more than 100 at build-out, which would make it industry-starved Somerset's fifth-largest employer, Walsh said.
“We chose Somerset County because we felt like we could have the biggest impact and move the needle a little bit," he added. “If we have the ability to bring jobs to that county that’s certainly in need, we want to do that.”
The facility may not need further county approval, said Gary Pusey, head of the county's planning office. Most properties allow agricultural uses. If the processing side of the operation is any more complex than extracting from the leaves, though, that may generate additional conversations, he said.
It is the only medical marijuana applicant he is aware of so far in the county.
Sheriff Ronnie Howard opposes the facility, saying marijuana, even in its medical applications, amounts to a gateway to more dangerous drugs.
"I understand there are people that have health issues, but I think the pharmaceutical companies are better at that than state government," he said.
The facility will be more secure than the local police department, Walsh said.
Howard said that may not matter. No amount of security will thwart thieves determined to break in, he said.
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