Nonprofit Manna Wellness to appeal medical marijuana license rejection
PITTSFIELD -- At least one of the four nonprofit groups turned down for a medical marijuana facility in the Berkshires will mount an appeal to the state Department of Public Health.
Nial C. DeMena, director of operations at Manna Wellness Inc., which planned a facility off West Housatonic Street, said Wednesday his group will meet with DPH officials in Boston on Tuesday to discuss the score their license application received and the opportunities for appeal.
DeMena also said some details about the review process, which he said was altered from the original format, were not made clear to his group. And he said it seems the DPH is not considering the advantages of having a locally owned and operated facility -- especially a newly constructed one, as Manna Wellness planned on a Callahan Drive parcel.
"This could be a major blow economically to Pittsfield," he said, referring to the estimated $2 million construction project, the hiring of staff locally and the use of contractors and vendors from the county.
He said Manna Wellness also had committed to a significant amount of philanthropic spending, totaling about $1 million over the first three years of operation.
The nonprofit received a letter from the state DPH, DeMena said, which gave two options for an appeal of the license denial: Request documentation of the nonprofit's score, or an in-person briefing in Boston, at which time the documentation would be provided. Manna Wellness chose to have a meeting and on Wednesday received word of the date and time.
DeMena also said he has questions about the DPH scoring process, especially relative to smaller nonprofits in less populated areas.
In one instance, he said, it was assumed that a panel of experts assembled by the DPH would judge and score the license applications, but the department retained a consultant, ICF International, to assign scores to the approximately 100 applications under consideration. Only then -- apparently after a score of less than 137 out of a possible 163 was deemed too low to qualify -- did the DPH panel make its selections, DeMena said.
Manna Wellness received 120 points in the ranking, the highest of five proposals from Berkshire County.
On Jan. 31, the DPH announced approval of the first 20 medical marijuana production and dispensary licenses under a program legalized through a statewide referendum in November 2012. The DPH has since then developed regulations for medical marijuana use, for the facilities and has been evaluating applications from nonprofit groups for licenses.
There were about 100 license applications still under consideration on Friday. Twenty were approved, and applications from another six nonprofits were judged to have scored high enough that they would be considered by the DPH for facilities in other, underserved areas of the state if they wished to apply there.
Manna Wellness and three other nonprofits applying for Berkshire County sites were among 61 "not selected at this time," the DPH said.
The enabling referendum specified up to 35 licenses, including at least one, but not more than five, in each county. DeMena and Michael Marino, whose Prospect Lake Inc. proposed a facility in Great Barrington, have said it was assumed throughout the process that one of the Berkshire applicants would be selected.
In the Berkshires, Manna Wellness received 120 points; Prospect Lake received 112 points, Greenhouse Dispensary Inc. in Lee received 102 points, and Total Health & Wellness 81 and 76 points respectively for sites in Pittsfield and North Adams.
The applicants were scored on such aspects as corporate structure, business experience, financing, security plans, location and other factors.
One of the seven categories each were scored on, Operations and Programmatic Response Requirements, saw low scores among all of the Berkshire applicants. Manna Wellness received 30 out of a possible 57 points. This, DeMena said, was unfair as his group deliberately scaled some of the operational aspects, such as size of the production area, to be efficient.
"We could have found other investors," he said, if added capacity or other facility features were required to gain a higher score. The facility and operation were in fact designed to the best practice standards in the industry nationwide, he said.
There also seems to be an emphasis now on beginning to dispense marijuana within a seven-month time frame, he said, which, if known initially might have convinced Manna to forgo a new facility. He said the indication at the start of the process was that there would be no hurried timeline.
As it now stands, DeMena said, if one of the six nonprofits approved switch their proposal to a site in an underserved area such as the Berkshires, their opening will occur at about the same time as if they had planned for new construction here.
Several of the six to be considered for licenses elsewhere have contacted Manna Wellness about a possible collaboration, DeMena said. But he said that would mean most money generated by the facility could flow out of the Berkshires.
Others involved in the licensing process have said they believe the county could end up with a dispensary but not a production facility, further reducing the economic impact here.
None of the other nonprofits rejected for a license here could be reached Wednesday for comment on possible appeals.
Asked about the appeals process thus far, Anne Roach, a spokeswoman for the DPH, said in an email, "In February, we will hold debriefings with applicants who wish to participate in this process and take any issues they raise into account. This process is consistent with state procurement principles."
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.