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Medical marijuana could be available to patients on the Lower Shore as early as September at one dispensary now under development in Salisbury.

And several other companies aren’t far behind its lead in the region.

That progress, however, comes with a potential hitch: The state licensing program is embroiled in lawsuits from companies that didn’t win preliminary approval, threatening to delay the rollout for those that did.

One of those roadblocks has been lifted — for now. Maryland’s highest court issued a stay Friday on a lower court’s temporary restraining order that had blocked state regulators from approving licenses to growers.

But the outcome of the case itself is pending.

The lawsuit, filed by a majority-black-owned company that didn’t get a license, charges that state officials didn’t follow a mandate to ensure racial and ethnic diversity within the ranks of the selected growers. 

The state also faces a separate lawsuit from two companies, claiming they were wrongly bypassed for licenses.

READ MORE: Legalize it, say Delaware marijuana backers of HB 110

RELATED: 3 Lower Shore firms OK’d to pursue medical marijuana

Last year, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission gave preliminary approval to seven companies to get off the ground on the Lower Shore, including four dispensaries, two processors and one grower.

Statewide, the commission has pre-approved 15 growers, 15 processors and 102 dispensaries.

At the vanguard of that first wave on the Lower Shore seems to be Peninsula Alternative Health. The dispensary has leased a building — a long-vacant former veterinary clinic at Snow Hill Road and East Locust Street in Salisbury — and begun renovations, said CEO Anthony Darby.

He is targeting a Sept. 1 opening. By then, he hopes to have secured a chain of supply with the only grower that obtained its license before the temporary halt went into effect: ForwardGro of Anne Arundel County.

Although the lower court judge’s order only applied to growers, it effectively shut down the entire industry in Maryland, Darby said. With no growers to produce marijuana plants, processors would have nothing to process and dispensaries would have nothing to dispense.

If the courts block licenses again, he said, “patients are going to be the ones to suffer.”

Maryland first decided to allow medical marijuana in 2013, but only academic centers were permitted to grow and dispense the drug. The effort stalled, however, because no academic medical centers stepped forward. The law was later revised, but further delays have resulted from intense interest in a market that stands to be lucrative, largely due to the fact that the law will allow wide patient access.

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Darby said he began giving medical marijuana serious thought as a livelihood after considering his experiences as a lacrosse player in high school and at Salisbury University. He and other athletes would get prescribed opioids for their injuries, and he worried that, for some, it could lead to abuse and addiction.

Medical marijuana, he came to believe, is “a true medicine that wasn’t being brought to light.”

Darby plans to leave his position in July at a financial data company and work full-time preparing his dispensary for opening.

The company has enlisted as its clinical director Mary Pat Hoffman, who has a doctorate in pharmacy from the University of Maryland and previously worked at Riverside Pharmacy in Salisbury and Apple Discount Drugs in Berlin. An online professional biography notes she was a co-instructor of a “Selected Topics in Medical Cannabis” class at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s pharmacy school.

Darby said the company settled on the Snow Hill Road location because of its proximity to Peninsula Regional Medical Center and the numerous physician offices that surround the hospital. 

Not everyone is happy with the new neighbor.

“I’m not for legalizing marijuana to start with,” said Louie Amabili, vice president of Discount Carpet, which is a few hundred feet down the street. “Let’s hope the clientele in the area doesn’t change.”

People who use medical marijuana aren’t criminals, Darby said.

“They’re going to be 70-year-old ladies and 19-year-old kids,” he said. “You look at the typical cannabis user, and there isn’t one.”

Just in case, Darby said, Peninsula Alternative Health is installing a security system so robust that its price tag represents the majority of the renovation costs.

A ‘High Tide’?

Another early entrant on the Lower Shore is taking a longer view than many of its brethren, looking toward to the day, if it comes, when marijuana is legalized for recreational use.

Alan Richardson, a Silver Spring businessman who operates a small chain of pharmacies, received pre-approval to open a dispensary under the name OC Botanicals. But in a nod to his belief in a brighter retail future, the sign outside will read “High Tide.”

“The marijuana stigma of getting high and causing trouble is decreasing significantly,” Richardson said. “I’ve had so many patients coming into my pharmacy congratulating me. I have a lot of older folks in high-end government positions saying ‘It’s about time.’”

He hopes to open the dispensary in September. It will be in West Ocean City within walking distance of downtown Ocean City, he said, but he declined to divulge the exact location until the project is complete.

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A second dispensary is eyeing a Salisbury location as well, but it’s in a much-earlier stage of development. Tilstar LLC owner Darryl Hill said he is waiting for more growers to get approval and the legal clouds to clear before moving forward.

But he likes the north side of Salisbury along the commercial strip of North Salisbury Boulevard north of the bypass for a location. 

“It’s a large population center,” Hill said. “And the two main roads, 13 going into Virginia and 50 going into Ocean City and back to the Bay Bridge, gives us high traffic and easy access.”

Hill is one of the few Maryland medical marijuana proprietors with his own Wikipedia page. He was the University of Maryland’s first African-American football player and still holds slots on the school’s all-time leader board for receiving.

He went on to a prolific career in business, launching everything from restaurants to a company that salvages sunken timber from the depths of the Amazon River.

Why medical marijuana?

“I’m basically a groundbreaker kind of guy,” said Hill, who lives in Laurel. He has partnered with a Canadian firm called Tilray to provide the technical expertise on the enterprise. “Cannabis has been such a bane to the African-American community over the years with incarceration. So now I think it’s time maybe the same drug could do something positive for underserved communities.”

As for the allegations about the lack of diversity among Maryland’s growers, Hill said he hopes the state can find a solution, preferably in Annapolis. During the spring session, lawmakers considered but did not pass bills that would have added up to five more grower licenses, potentially enabling more minority-owned businesses to participate.

“We have mixed emotions because we’re both,” Hill said. “We have a dispensary license now, and we’re still fighting to get a grow license.”

Representatives couldn’t be reached for comment from AFS Maryland LLC, a processor in Wicomico County; Blair Wellness Center LLC, a processor in Worcester County; Shore Natural Rx LLC, a grower in Worcester; and Positive Energy LLC, a dispensary pre-approved for one of the three lower counties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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