Utah officials ask potential cannabis growers to step forward, hoping to get plants in the ground this year

The race is on in Utah for a cannabis cultivation license.

On Friday, state agriculture officials began inviting applications from prospective growers who will be vying for one of 10 cultivation licenses. That puts the state on track for cannabis plants to begin growing this year, with the first medical marijuana products ready for patients in early 2020, according to a news release.

“I’ll say that we’re pleasantly surprised to see the urgency with which regulators are moving forward,” said Connor Boyack, a medical cannabis advocate who helped craft Utah’s new marijuana law. “When we were working on the law, implementation was always a concern. We’ve seen in other states, the program rollout gets dragged on for months if not years.”

The grower selection process is meant to “clearly identify which facilities are the most qualified to meet the needs of the Utah Medical Cannabis Act, and which applicants are most prepared to begin cultivating medical cannabis in Utah,” Andrew Rigby, hemp and cannabis program director for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said in a prepared statement.

Hopefuls will have to shell out a nonrefundable $2,500 fee to apply and, if selected, will have to pay another $100,000 for the license itself. Individuals with a financial or voting interest of more than 2% in the cultivation outfit must also pass a background check demonstrating that they haven’t been convicted of a felony or convicted of a misdemeanor for drug distribution since December.

Applicants are supposed to submit blueprints of their proposed indoor or outdoor facilities, their security plans and their process for handling and tracking cannabis plants.

The state will close bidding on July 1 and score applicants based on their experience, operating and business plans and “positive community involvement,” among other criteria. The state’s evaluation committee could choose to award fewer than 10 licenses, according to the bid solicitation.

Tom Paskett, executive director of the Utah Cannabis Association, said potential growers have already been preparing to submit detailed applications to the state. And despite the six-figure license fee, he doesn’t expect a shortage of applicants.

“From my vantage point, I would assume that there will be some competition,” Paskett said.

Utah voters last year passed a ballot initiative to establish a medical cannabis program in the state. Lawmakers shortly thereafter gathered in a special session to replace the initiative language with medical cannabis legislation drafted as a compromise between state officials, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some patient advocates.

The legislation allows for 10 cannabis growers initially and up to 15 if the need arises. Each cultivation facility is limited in size to no more than 100,000 square feet of indoor space and four acres of outdoor space.