After waiting more than five years for a license to grow and distribute medical cannabis, Santa Fe residents Mark and Elizabeth Springer are once again feeling betrayed.
A certified letter from state health department program managers last week notified the couple that their second application for Medical Marijuana Inc., is not one of the 17 applicants still being considered by Health Secretary Retta Ward. Ward announced last month that more than 80 applicants had been numerically scored and just the top 20 percent would continue in the process.
It's not the first time the Springers have been left sitting on the sidelines. The department found that their original 2010 application met regulators' criteria, but their nonprofit organization wasn't issued a license after then-Health Secretary Catherine Torres determined market capacity had been met by 25 other producers ahead of them.
At the time, Torres promised the Springers and three other groups that their applications would be considered first when new licenses were issued.
In 2013, when a government survey showed chronic shortages of medical marijuana, the Springers headed to court to ask a judge to force the department to issue them a license, arguing that the action would help boost the amount of medication available to the growing number of registered patients.
Last December, state district court Judge Jennifer Attrep ordered the department to allow the Springers to update their application, but the couple's legal pursuit appears to have ruffled the department's feathers. Even though the Springers believe their application meets the department's requirement, they didn't make the first cut.
The duo tells SFR they don't think the screening committee, which includes Deputy Director of the Office of Policy and Accountability Dawn Hunter, Deputy Secretary Lynn Gallagher, Scientific Laboratory Division Director David Mills and Medical Cannabis Program Coordinator Andrea Sundberg, gave their new application "any real consideration."
As proof they may have been blackballed, the Springers point to a line in their official notification that indicates Medical Marijuana Inc. will get back all but $1,000 of the department's $10,000 application fee. The couple had never paid that fee, however, because the department kept its 2010 payment. "They just punched us out with a form letter like everybody else," says Elizabeth Springer.
A qualified master grower who has consulted for grow operations around the country, Mark Springer says he's frustrated with the department's "lack of transparency" and wonders if program managers deliberately sabotaged his group's application.
"This is an egregious violation of the court order," he says. "I was hoping they were going to remedy it by being fair, but I don't believe that they are."
His wife and business partners say they think program managers are holding a grudge.
"I think that there are people there who probably were part of the voting group that have been particularly nasty to us," Elizabeth Springer says, questioning if the department even opened their application or "just wrote down low numbers on their evaluation sheet."
The Springers have asked their attorney, Brian Egolf, to have a conversation about the process with Health Department General Counsel Chris Woodward, but getting a license could be an uphill battle.
Kenny Vigil, a health department spokesman, tells SFR Ward's decisions are final, and there is no administrative appeal process.
Vigil disputes the Springers' claim that they were promised an application.
"MMI [Medical Marijuana, Inc.] did not meet requirements for licensure because it was not among the highest scoring applicants, and its application was denied," Vigil writes in an email.
It's not clear what will happen with the 10,000-foot grow space the Springers planned to build near Buffalo Thunder in Santa Fe County. For now, Mark Springer, who says he spent close to $150,000 preparing his two applications over the past six years, says he'll keep growing his own medication at home and wondering why some of the current producers who aren't reporting any harvest yields keep getting their licenses renewed.
The news isn't all bad for Santa Fe applicants. David Romero White, whose 2010 application for Organtica was approved but not issued a license, is in the top 20 percent of applicants this year.
Romero White and others like Jason Mark, an attorney who helped Robert Crawford incorporate Southwest Wellness Center, say they're still not sure how Ward will ultimately decide who wins a lucrative license or how many will be issued.
"What little I know at this point is consistent with DOH making its first cut based on the quality of plans and presentation," says Marks.
But maybe not. Tim Star, who SFR profiled earlier this month, says he believes his cannabis leaf juicing plans were good, but like the Springers, he received official notice that his nonprofit Weeds of Change is no longer in the running.
SFR asked former Public Safety Director and Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White the status of PurLife's application but never received a response.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson tells SFR he too still hasn't heard if the application he consulted on for fellow gas balloon pilot Mark Sullivan made it to the second phase or was rejected.
Meanwhile, Len Goodman, the founder of Santa Fe's New MexiCann Natural Medicine, says that he's teaming up with a former grower from Farmington who let his original license lapse. Now reorganized, the group, led by Chad Morris, is keeping their fingers crossed that Giving Tree Organics gets a new license. If it does, they plan to develop a line of cannabidiol products.
"We're not planning to open a dispensary," says Goodman, adding they'll offer their new products wholesale to other producers around the state.
There's no word from the health department on when it might determine which, if any, applicants gets a new license.