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Adrian Walker

Medical marijuana firm wonders why it fell short

As the drama over the state’s foray into medical marijuana unfolds, G. Malik Burnett and Corey Barnette continue to wonder why exactly their effort to take part fell short.

Burnett and Barnette are two of the principals in Bay State Holistic, a company that had designs on distributing medical marijuana in the Worcester area. Their team boasted many of the qualities considered crucial to winning a license from the Department of Public Health, including an attractive location, experience in the field, and local support. They were also the only minority-owned firm in the competition.

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Burnett is a Duke-educated physician with an MBA, while Barnette runs a major dispensary in Washington D.C., widely considered the most highly regulated medical marijuana market in the country. They understand the medical issues and have experience in government-regulated cultivation. What their company did not have were political connections or well-known lobbyists.

They can’t help wondering whether any of that mattered.

“This is totally speculation,” Barnett said, choosing his words carefully. “But I feel like when you look at some of the teams that won, there’s no way in the world you can tell me that relationships with government officials didn’t play a role.”

What is certain is that they find themselves without a license or a plausible means of appeal. They are $30,000 poorer — that’s what their application cost — but none the wiser about what their company lacked. Their application fell 17 points shy of success, and they say that, despite meeting with state officials to seek answers, they have no idea why.

“When you look at our scoring, the main takeaway. . . was that we lacked expertise,” Burnett said. “Given my knowledge and the fact that one of our partners has a dispensary and cultivation center in the most regulated market in the country in Washington, D.C., I was shocked.”

As you may have heard, the awarding of 20 temporary licenses earlier this year has become a running controversy. Critics have charged that some of the winning companies boasted stellar political connections but slender expertise. Some local officials have claimed that their support — deemed a critical element in the approval process — was exaggerated by applicants.

Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that the DPH should simply restart the entire process.

Dr. Burnett got into the medical marijuana field by accident. He was a surgical resident at UMass Medical Center in Worcester when he happened to read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” a scathing indictment of the so-called war on drugs and its disproportionate effect on black people. He began to view legalizing medical marijuana as an antidote to mass incarceration for minor drug offenses.

At the same time, his training had opened his eyes to the medical potential of marijuana. “[Certain drugs] have their negative stigma but when you are in the medical field you know that is not necessarily so,” he said.

After attending business school at Duke, Barnette first became involved in medical marijuana distribution in San Diego before opening District Growers in Washington D.C. He believes the review process for applicants here in Massachusetts was not nearly rigorous enough. He believes the agency ignored readily available information about applicants.

“We remain positive on Massachusetts,” he said. “I hope they have a good and robust program because there are patients there that do need help. But we think that the state could have potentially turned away some very good operators in the process.”

No government agency ever likes to admit mistakes, but it’s time for DPH to fully own up to its failure here. When critics outnumber defenders, the process has failed.

DPH needs to admit and fix its mess, and if that means starting over — as some have suggested — so be it. This effort is worth getting right.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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