Western Maryland Town Poised To Get Into Medical Marijuana Business
Above Photo: BRENNAN LINSLEY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The small Western Maryland town of Hancock — population 1,545 — is poised to be a part-owner of a medical marijuana company after winning a license to grow cannabis plants this week.
The town is in a unique partnership with an Arizona company that plans to grow cannabis in a town-owned warehouse and share profits with the Washington County town.
After Hancock suffered an exodus of about 1,000 jobs over the past two decades, the cannabis industry could spark an economic turnaround for the town and surrounding communities, said Mayor Daniel Murphy.
“I’ve embraced it, our town has embraced it,” Murphy said. “We’re glad to be on the ground floor of medical cannabis. We hope it will be a success.”
Hancock officials have been working on the medical cannabis plans for about a year, after the town was approached by Harvest Inc., a company based in Arizona that has cannabis operations there and has obtained licenses in Nevada and Illinois.
Harvest had its eye on the Stanley Fulton Center, a large warehouse in Hancock that once housed a manufacturing plant for Fleetwood Travel Trailers and is now owned by the town.
Harvest approached town officials and worked out an agreement to rent the warehouse and give the town a 5 percent equity stake in the operation, which will be called Harvest of Maryland LLC.
Though the town will have a 5 percent stake in the company, it won’t have a seat on the company’s board or a say in its operations. The town would be insulated from liability if the venture fails and racks up debts, Murphy said.
The Town Council voted unanimously last October to partner with Harvest. The mayor and council members are chosen in nonpartisan elections.
Harvest promised to spend $15 million on renovations and employ 120 people if it could get cannabis growing and processing businesses off the ground in Hancock.
Skeptics were quickly won over when they learned about the plans for tight security, the medical uses of cannabis and the promise of sorely needed jobs, Murphy said.
“They came, they embraced our little town. They fell in love with this unique town on the Potomac … and we were very impressed with their track record,” Murphy said.
He noted that Harvest brought expertise in the industry to the application process, while Hancock’s involvement gave the proposal local roots.
Maryland’s Medical Cannabis Commission issued 15 preliminary licenses for cannabis growers and 15 for processors on Monday. Though Harvest of Maryland was seeking both, it was only awarded a growing license.
The commission has yet to issue up to 94 licenses for dispensaries.
Harvest CEO Steve White said he thinks the company can eventually win a processing license, too. And if it doesn’t, it can instead cultivate more cannabis in the Hancock warehouse, he said.
White said he looked for a spot to open a cannabis facility in a rural part of Maryland and quickly settled on Hancock.
“They had this facility ready for us to move into, then we really liked the leadership in the town,” he said. The project became “more than just developing a successful business but also having a true impact on a community that needed it,” he said.
Murphy said the opening of a cannabis operation represents a step forward for Hancock.
The small town, which sits at the narrowest part of Maryland, once drew people from surrounding counties, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to work in its factories: Fleetwood Travel Trailers, London Fog and Rayloc Auto Parts. Combined, they once employed about 1,000 skilled workers. Today, only Rayloc remains, with a smaller workforce in less-skilled jobs.
Workers have been forced to find jobs farther away, in Hagerstown and Frederick, adding to their commuting times and costs, Murphy said.
“Unemployment is high; mean income is low,” Murphy said.
Washington County’s unemployment rate was 5 percent in June, compared to the statewide rate of 4.5 percent, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“If the 100 jobs comes through like we’re hoping, that could be important for a small town,” said Wayne Keefer, who owns North Bend Treasures antiques shop in Hancock and serves as president of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce. He also serves as a Washington County commissioner.
Hancock has been trying to boost its tourism industry, capitalizing on the Western Maryland Rail Trail and the C&O Canal towpath, but tourism alone can’t save the town, Keefer said.
Partnering with a medical cannabis company is an outside-the-box way to spur economic development. Keefer said once residents and business owners learned the details of the proposal, most were on board.
“I think some people weighed: What’s more detrimental to our community? Growing medical cannabis or losing 100 jobs?” Keefer said. “By far, the vast majority of people see the benefit of the jobs as well as the benefits of medicinal marijuana.”
Not everyone is sold on the concept, however.
Del. Neil C. Parrott, a Republican who represents Washington County in Annapolis, remains opposed to bringing the medical cannabis industry to his community.
“I didn’t want to see Colorado come to Washington County, and I don’t think my constituents wanted that either,” Parrott said.
In addition to Harvest of Maryland in Hancock, the state also awarded growing and processing licenses to Kind Therapeutics USA, which also would be located in Washington County.
Parrott believes that the licensing of medical cannabis and the recent decriminalization of small amounts of recreational marijuana represent steps toward full legalization of the drug, which he opposes.
Getting involved in the industry “definitely is not worth it” for the jobs these businesses would bring, Parrott said. He’d rather promote business such as Lanco Dairy Farms, which is reopening a shuttered cheese plant near Hancock.
Murphy, a veterinarian who has been mayor for 20 years, still sees only the upside of the cannabis facility.
“We were very lucky in our community to have acceptance from our citizens,” he said. “They were so excited about the possibility of jobs that they were able to listen with an open mind and understand that we weren’t talking about pushing drugs on the street.”
White doesn’t know yet when Harvest can start operations in Hancock, as the company still needs final approval from the state commission. “Ideally for us, we’d like to start tomorrow,” he said.
He said he knows of no other public-private partnership in the cannabis industry like his company’s relationship with Hancock.