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Winning marijuana team limits its role

Delahunt, colleagues won’t run operations; little-known director brought in

William Delahunt, a former congressman, and all of the other top executives at Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts won’t be running the company’s cultivation and dispensing operations in Mashpee, Plymouth, and Taunton.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe/file 2013

William Delahunt, a former congressman, and all of the other top executives at Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts won’t be running the company’s cultivation and dispensing operations in Mashpee, Plymouth, and Taunton.

The credentials of the executives at Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts impressed local officials on the South Shore. A former congressman, William Delahunt, led the group as the chief executive. A former top US drug enforcement agent headed security. And the president of a well-known Cape Cod substance abuse treatment center would direct the new company’s addiction prevention services.

“They did put together a very credible team,” said Police Chief Michael E. Botieri of Plymouth, who said he met last year with Delahunt and his team.

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This strong local support helped the company land three of the 20 medical marijuana dispensary licenses awarded last week by the state Department of Public Health, but Delahunt and all the other top executives are keeping their full-time jobs and will not be running the company’s cultivation and dispensing operations in Mashpee, Plymouth, and Taunton.

Medical Marijuana of Massachusetts has been much less forthcoming about the credentials of the person who will direct the daily operations: Avis Bulbulyan, described in the company’s license application as a California resident who would relocate to Massachusetts.

A Boston Globe review of the winning applications shows that the firm provided the state with scant information about Bulbulyan compared to the often extensive backgrounds all the other applicants provided for these critical positions.

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Delahunt would be the highest paid chief executive among the successful dispensary applicants that disclosed the pay of their chief executives, with his annual salary listed as $250,000. Many of the other firms’ chief executives would be paid about half that amount, according to the Globe’s examination of the applications.

The combined annual salaries of Delahunt and his four other top executives is listed as $1.1 million, eclipsing by far the amounts paid to the leadership teams of the other winning applicants, many of which list wages half that of Delahunt’s company for their top five to eight executives. An official with his company said he doubts that Delahunt and the other executives would collect the salaries in the first years of operation, however.

Delahunt’s group was the only applicant granted three licenses. The success of the former congressman in the license sweepstakes has been the focus of much discussion among competitors about whether there was anything untoward in the selection process. He has long been friends with the head of the agency that awarded the licenses, state Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett.

But Delahunt and state officials insist everything was done above board, noting that an independent consultant awarded his three dispensaries the top scores among the 100 applicants, 160 out of 163 possible points.

“I would consider [Delahunt] a colleague of mine in public health,” Bartlett said in an interview this week. Bartlett is a nurse who long worked with AIDS patients and homeless people on Nantucket and Cape Cod, part of the congressional district Delahunt served, and she and Delahunt often worked together to raise funds for those causes. But she said their history did not sway the state’s decision on awarding of licenses.

Delahunt, who has been active in Democratic politics for four decades, was a state representative, district attorney, and congressman from 1997 until 2011. He is now a state and federal lobbyist whose clients include the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in their bid to open a casino in Massachusetts.

Kevin O’Reilly, the medical marijuana company’s director of community outreach, also has deep roots in local and state politics. He is a former chief of staff to Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, and has served as her campaign manager since her first race in 1992. He runs a consulting firm that advises political candidates and companies seeking government approval for projects.

With so many connections, Delahunt’s team was well known to many of the officials they met with as they sought approval for their dispensary, and they won a striking level of community support. Local approval was a key component in the state’s scoring process.

When company officials met with Fire Chief G. Edward Bradley of Plymouth, he already knew Delahunt well. Bradley recalled that he could always reach out to Delahunt in Congress when the Fire Department needed funding or legislation.

When company officials presented their plans to Laurie Curtis, president of the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, she already knew O’Reilly. He was her immediate predecessor as the chamber president. And when the company presented its plans to Timothy Grandy, vice chairman of the Plymouth Planning Board, he said he knew O’Reilly as a Plymouth precinct chairman who “works hard for the residents of the community.”

Still, all the officials insisted those connections had no bearing as they weighed applications. Curtis said Delahunt’s political experience only helped him to present a compelling case for his marijuana business.

“It’s not so much that people say: ‘Wow, he’s a former congressman. We should do it because he’s a former congressman,’ ” Curtis said. “But the fact that he’s a former congressman means he knows how to run an effective promotional campaign.”

Plymouth’s selectmen endorsed Delahunt’s company with a letter of support, while issuing a more lukewarm “letter of nonopposition” for its competitor for a Plymouth dispensary, Mass Organic Therapy. That company earned the second-highest score among all 100 applications reviewed, but failed to win a license.

“Although [Mass Organic] did have some history of doing this in Maine, which I think was a plus, they just didn’t have the stronger credentials as we saw in [Delahunt’s] group, said Mathew Muratore, the selectmen chairman, adding that he was impressed that a former top DEA official and a former detective were heading up security for Delahunt’s company.

For its Mashpee application, Delahunt’s company says it won letters or public statements of support from District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings, Police Chief Rodney Collins, and Mashpee’s Board of Selectmen, which said Delahunt’s firm would set the “gold standard” for medical marijuana in Massachusetts.

The company intends to grow enough marijuana to serve more than 4,800 patients in its first year of business, according to its applications, but the man in charge of cultivation, and his experience, is something of an enigma.

Avis Bulbulyan has “cultivated commercial medicinal marijuana in California since 2008 for dispensaries in San Diego and Los Angeles,” according to the firm’s application, which omits names of those companies. It also says Bulbulyan was a cultivation instructor for three Los Angeles area dispensaries, but does not name them.

Delahunt’s chief financial officer, Jonathan Herlihy, said he was unable to recall the names of the companies during an interview this week and did not provide the Globe a copy of Bulbulyan’s resume, despite several requests. Attempts to reach Bulbulyan were unsuccessful.

Unlike Massachusetts, California leaves regulation and oversight to individual cities and towns, making it hard to track quality and performance, and in that void, hundreds of small dispensaries and cultivation sites have opened.

Earnie Blackmon — master cultivator for RiverRock, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado — said it is crucial to have the right person running the marijuana-growing operation. Many of the marijuana companies that raced to open in Colorado fizzled, he said, often because of a lack of cultivation experience.

“Without the proper cultivation, there is no medicine, and without the medicine you have an unsuccessful system,” said Blackmon.

Karen van Unen, director of the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Program, said the state took care to insulate the licensing process from political influence. She said that the material given to the committee that recommended finalists to her did not include the names of the applicants’ top executives or board members.

The selection committee saw the company name, a summary of how each company was scored by an outside consulting agency that reviewed the entire applications, and a summary of the consultant’s findings for each applicant.

She said the selection process placed a heavy emphasis on companies’ ability to respond to patient needs and on access, while issues such as salaries for executives and whether their staff had cultivation experience were not as important.

“Certainly cultivation skills were a plus,” van Unen said. “But we were not just looking for cultivation experience, because that would shut out local residents from applying for these positions because marijuana hasn’t been legal in Massachusetts.”

John Carmichael Jr., deputy police chief in Walpole and a member of the selection committee, said that even though the panel did not receive the names of companies’ top executives, it did receive information about their professional backgrounds, so committee members knew which companies were Delahunt’s.

“That said, [Delahunt’s] was a very solid application,” said Carmichael. “Nobody cared who the face was.”

While many of the applicants projected a profit in the first year and some estimated a modest to moderate loss, Delahunt’s company expects to see substantial losses at each of its three dispensaries in the first year, ranging from roughly $848,000 in Taunton to more than $1.2 million in Mashpee, according to its application.

The company’s chief operating officer, Jonathan Herlihy, said in an interview that there will probably not be enough of a profit in the first year or two to pay salaries to top executives, despite what the company listed in its applications.

For that reason, both he and Delahunt said in interviews, all the executive team, officers, and directors will be keeping their existing full-time positions in addition to working with the marijuana company.

“Obviously we have to defer to the staff that will be there on a full-time basis,” Delahunt said. “This is not the gold rush. There may be some people who think it is, but it is not.”

Chelsea Conaboy contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com.
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