Cannabis-growing expertise barely rated by Mass. regulators

Shelley Murphy and Kay Lazar, The Boston Globe

The co-owner of one of the oldest marijuana cultivation facilities in Colorado assisted seven companies seeking Massachusetts licenses to sell and grow medical marijuana. Not one of the applicants was picked.

So the Colorado executive was floored when he got a call a few weeks ago from the lawyer for Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, asking for his help to grow the company’s product.

Medical Marijuana, a company led by former US representative William D. Delahunt, had been granted preliminary state approval for three of the 20 licenses, though its chief of cultivation had never led such a facility and had worked only in much smaller operations in California, where there is no state oversight of marijuana companies.

“I thought it was weird that we got passed over for someone without cannabis cultivation experience,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, who runs Denver Relief Consulting.

The episode highlighted for him and others in the medical marijuana industry the fact that cultivation expertise, a crucial element in the success of a medical marijuana business, was given little weight by Massachusetts regulators and contractors hired by the state to evaluate the license applicants.

Just four of the 163 possible points applicants could earn had to do with cultivation, including the grower’s experience and plans to ensure the quality and purity of the crop, according to a score sheet provided to the Globe by one of the losing applicants. That compares with 20 possible points applicants could receive for community support of their facilities and 25 points for a strong security system.

Officials of marijuana companies were astounded that so little focus was placed on applicants’ ability to grow the product.

“Cannabis is a very finicky plant,” said Earnie Blackmon, the master cultivator with RiverRock, one of the larger medical marijuana dispensaries in Denver.

Many of Blackmon’s Denver competitors went belly up early on, he said, because of a lack of cultivation experience, especially with growing in large greenhouses, which would be the case for facilities opening in Massachusetts.

“A small bug problem becomes a massive bug problem [in large greenhouses],” he said, “and a small mold problem becomes a massive problem.”

Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit that advocates for research and medical use of marijuana, said most of the 20 states that have passed medical marijuana laws, some back in the 1990s, have focused more attention on security and local acceptance than on whether the marijuana companies know how to grow the products they are selling, because of pressure from law enforcement and communities.

“It is surprising that knowing who the cultivators are and whether they have experience, that that wouldn’t be more important than security,” said Sherer. “But it’s not a surprise because the way governments have approached medical cannabis is, will this disrupt public safety.”

She said that only now, in some states that have recently passed laws or updated them, are rules being adopted to require cultivation experience.

Karen van Unen, director of the medical marijuana program of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said in a recent interview that her agency believes that expertise in agriculture and medical marijuana cultivation are not as critical as other factors in deciding whether a company can run a good marijuana and cultivation system.

“It’s important for the [applicant] to have an understanding of how businesses are set up and how health care works, irrespective of what the product is,” van Unen said. “We could be selling candy or shoes. This is really about business management and business infrastructure.”

Agriculture and cultivation experience were not areas of expertise that the Department of Public Health sought last fall when it listed its requirements for a consultant to help the agency evaluate prospective applicants’ submissions.

The department hired ICF International, a Fairfax, Va., company, to review 100 applications, score them, and prepare a brief summary about each application for a selection committee.

State records show that ICF used a seven-member review team, with expertise in a wide range of fields, including chemistry, oceanography, biology, geography, finance, business management, regional planning, and public health. None of the reviewers listed expertise in agriculture, cultivation, or medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, Delahunt’s company, stated in its applications that it planned to grow enough marijuana from its cultivation site on Collins Avenue in Plymouth to serve more than 4,800 patients at its three dispensaries in its first year of business. The applications said the company’s cultivation plans are based on the experience and “best practices” of its cultivation manager, Avis Bulbulyan, but provided few details about his experience or where he had worked.

Nevertheless, the company received all four possible points for its cultivation experience and plans.

Reached by telephone this week at his California home, Bulbulyan said he helped train cultivation staff and design greenhouses for several small California marijuana collectives, the largest a 16,000-square-foot growing facility serving 89 members.

The Plymouth operation would be roughly three times larger than the largest facility Bulbulyan had experience with in the past.

He said he has since left Delahunt’s company because of compensation issues.

Khalatbari, of Denver Relief Consulting, said Lianne Ankner, general counsel of Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts, sent him an e-mail Feb. 25 that said the company was “rethinking our cultivation strategy and would like to talk with you about whether you’d be able to assist us in that regard.”

Khalatbari, whose firm assisted a company that competed against Delahunt’s firm for a dispensary in Barnstable County, said he told Ankner he was not interested.

In e-mails responding to inquiries from the Globe, Ankner said Delahunt’s team has not changed its cultivation plan since winning preliminary approval for dispensaries in Plymouth, Mashpee, and Taunton. She said the company severed ties with its initial cultivation manager and recently hired two men to replace him.

“We continue to believe our cultivation plan is solid,” Ankner wrote.