Annapolis: General Assembly Leaders push for Plan to Increase Diversity in Medical Marijuana Licenses

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The president of the Maryland Senate is sponsoring a bill to increase diversity in medical marijuana grower licenses after a spate of other legislation addressing the issue has failed to gain traction in the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, would grant up to five more growing licenses and increase the likelihood they would go to minority-owned businesses. The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission would partner with historically black colleges and universities and conduct outreach targeted toward minorities and women, under Miller’s bill.

Maryland has had one of slowest rollouts of medical marijuana in the country. The commission, which grants licenses to growers, processors and dispensaries, has been hampered by legal battles and subsequent legislation since Maryland legalized medical cannabis in 2014.

To squash pending lawsuits, the five new licenses would include two businesses that are currently suing the commission.

After complaints surfaced that the commission didn’t fairly include representation in areas of southeastern Maryland, the commission revised their original unanimous decision on the 15 companies slated to receive growing licenses by bumping two higher-scoring applicants, GTI and Maryland Cultivation and Processing LLC, and replacing them with two lower-scoring applicants from the underrepresented areas.

Representatives from GTI confirmed that they would withdraw their suit against the commission if they can acquire a license under this new legislation.

Moreover, the Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year called for an overhaul of the commission after expressing outrage when none of the 15 pre-approved growing companies for licenses was owned by African Americans.

While the bill does not prohibit current members of the commission from being reappointed, it does shrink the commission from 16 to nine members, said Victoria Gruber, Miller’s chief of staff. The bill also includes language to create a more “diverse board” to better reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of Maryland, she added.

While previous bills to increase the diversity have included a preference for minority-owned business, this may violate the U.S. Constitution, Cheryl A. Brown-Whitfield, principal counsel of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said earlier this session.

Maryland would need to conduct a study to evaluate whether discrimination does exist in the medical cannabis industry before it could take race-conscious measures in awarding licenses, Zenita Hurley, the Maryland attorney general’s director of legislative affairs and civil rights, told lawmakers earlier this session.

However, to speed the process the state may be able to hire an expert to review existing disparity studies, such as in the agriculture or pharmaceutical fields, to determine whether the state can move forward with a preference for minority-owned businesses in Maryland’s medical marijuana industry without a full-blown study, Gruber said.

The bill proposes to employ either a disparity study or an expert to determine whether there is a need for a minority-business preference before doling out the three remaining licenses, Gruber said.

It would also establish a fund to provide veterans and low-income patients with a way to pay for the drug. This would be provided through a 1 percent fee on growers and processors and 0.5 percent fee on dispensaries, Gruber said. The commission will be able to adjust these fees, she added.

The commission expected medical cannabis to be available to patients this summer, Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the group, said in late February.

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