Utah medical pot applicants under wraps but will be revealed

Who is going to grow Utah’s medical marijuana remains unknown as a July 1 license application deadline looms.

State officials leading the medical marijuana license process said this week they will not release the names of applicants right now but will likely make applicant information public as soon as licenses are awarded mid-July.

It's the latest development in a high-stakes affair where local farmers and state officials wrestle with how to grow a new crop of cannabis in a heavily-regulated environment.

The popularity of medical pot is rising as more states legalize it, with politically conservative states such as Utah and Oklahoma among the most recent additions. There are now 33 states where medical marijuana is legal and at least 1.4 million people are patients nationwide, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Applications to grow Utah’s medical pot opened on May 31. Utah will allow up to 10 growers, including out-of-state cultivators, to produce it for state consumption.

Some states shielded medical marijuana license applications from the public, including Illinois and Nevada. But several companies that lost bids for Nevada dispensary licenses last year filed lawsuits arguing the process wasn't transparent.

Utah wants to avoid similar legal quagmires. Assistant Attorney General Paul Tonks, who is helping coordinate medical marijuana license applications, said releasing applicants' names once licenses are awarded will increase transparency.

Chris Hughes, the director of the state's Division of Purchasing who is assisting Tonks with the license process, said releasing applicants' names before licenses are awarded could negatively sway the process.

"Knowing who their competition is could create undue influence or give potential growers an unfair advantage," said Hughes. "We want to be as open and transparent as possible without creating issues."

Information that could impair the government's purchase of services or goods like medical pot is typically withheld until bidders are awarded, he added.

Farmers and marijuana advocates said they support the state’s decision.

Tom Paskett, the executive director of the Utah Cannabis Association, said releasing information during the process could do more harm than good. "We don't want folks framing their bids based on other applicants, or the competition to start before cultivators even get their licenses," he said.

Others said knowing who other bidders are would be an unwelcome distraction.

“If I knew how many big, out-of-state cultivators were also applying, it would psyche me out,” said Lyle Christensen, a Utah farmer applying to grow medical pot.

Marijuana legalization has faced an uphill battle since residents voted in favor of legalizing pot in November.

Utah lawmakers crafted sweeping changes to the ballot measure shortly before Election Day under a compromise that secured the influential support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some marijuana advocates. The deal drew backlash from other advocates.

The revised law became effective in December. It bans many marijuana edibles, prevents people from growing marijuana if they live far from a dispensary and makes fewer medical conditions eligible for treatment with pot.

Two cannabis advocacy groups — Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, and the Epilepsy Association of Utah — responded by suing the state in December to block the compromise, arguing that it was unconstitutional to replace a law passed by voters, said Rocky Anderson, an attorney for the groups.

If successful, the lawsuit could change or delay the distribution of medical marijuana in Utah, said Anderson.

Marijuana dispensaries are set to open in Utah next year.