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Maryland medical marijuana panel will hire diversity consultant

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Following criticism, Maryland's medical marijuana panel plans to hire a diversity consultant.

The Maryland Cannabis Commission announced Monday it will hire a consultant to review what steps — if any — it could take to improve diversity in the state's nascent medical marijuana industry.

The consultant will determine if it is feasible to conduct a study of whether minorities have been unfairly excluded from the industry, among other tasks. Such a determination would allow Maryland to consider race when awarding licenses to grow, process or distribute marijuana for medical use.

The announcement follows the filing of a lawsuit alleging the commission improperly ignored race when evaluating applicants for licenses, and calls by African-American lawmakers to halt the licensing process.

Nearly all the firms that have won preliminary licenses are owned by white men.

A state law requires the commission to "actively seek to achieve" racial diversity.

The commission has said it was following the advice of the state attorney general's office when it declined to include race-based selection criteria in applications.

The attorney general's office had said it would be unconstitutional to do so without first completing a disparity study.

Hiring a consultant will not delay the licensing process, officials said. The commission expects to award final licenses to grow, process and dispense the drug in time for the entire program to be up and running this summer.

Plans to hire the consultant were announced at a meeting in Ellicott City, where the commission also selected the companies that will receive the 102 preliminary licenses to operate medical marijuana dispensaries. The identities of the companies are to be released Dec. 9. The panel has already awarded preliminary licenses to grow and process the drug.

Patrick Jameson, the commission's executive director, said Monday the consultant will review "the whole big picture" of diversity in medical marijuana.

It was not immediately clear what steps the consultant would take. Jameson said he was not sure it was possible to do a disparity study on a new industry.

It was unclear whether the consultant would study Maryland's industry as it stands now, the medical marijuana industry in other states, or review data from other industries that could shed light on conditions for minorities trying to get into the medical cannabis business in Maryland.

Del. Cheryl Glenn, leader of the Legislative Black Caucus and an architect of the medical cannabis law, called talk of studying the feasibility of a disparity study "ridiculous."

"It shouldn't be any question in anyone's mind," said Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat. "Obviously, marijuana is a new industry for Maryland. There's no disagreement about that. But you don't have to look at marijuana to see disparities.

"Look at the current pharmaceutical industry. Look at the issues for black farmers.

"This commission never ceases to amaze me."

Alternative Medicine Maryland filed a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court last month alleging the commission illegally disregarded racial diversity when selecting applicants.

Jameson declined to discuss the lawsuit but said companies selected to receive the 15 preliminary licenses to grow and 15 preliminary licenses to process marijuana have "significant minority participation" in their ranks.

The commission discussed the lawsuit in a closed-door meeting.

Jameson also said the commission is "highly encouraging" businesses to "engage and recruit minority owners, investors and employees where practical."

Glenn and other members of the Black Caucus argue that working for a cannabis company is not equivalent to owning a company that holds one of the lucrative licenses.

She said Monday that the caucus would not accept the results of a study conducted at the commission's behest.

"If they're hired by the commission, then we don't trust them," she said. "We don't trust the commission at this point."

Darrell Carrington, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association, said he would "wait and see" what the consultant does before commenting.

"From the discussion we heard today, there seems to be a feeling that it was a fair process," Carrington said.

Separately, the commission said it used a Nobel Prize-winning optimization algorithm to help determine which of the more than 800 dispensary applicants would receive a license.

Several companies applied to open dispensaries in all of Maryland's 47 legislative districts. No company can hold more than one dispensary license.

Ten of the 15 companies that were awarded preliminary licenses to grow marijuana also won dispensary licenses, Commissioner Shannon Moore said.

Maryland's medical marijuana program has been among the slowest in the country to get off the ground. The law first passed in 2013, was rewritten in 2014, and was then expanded to allow a wide range of medical professionals, including dentists and podiatrists, to recommend the drug.

The state allows medical professionals to recommend marijuana to treat a long list of ailments. It limits how many licenses can be issued to grow, process and dispense the drug.

The prospect of a market with broad demand and limited supply sparked intense interest from investors, who submitted more than three times as many applications as regulators expected.

Commission Chairman Dr. Paul Davies said Monday that Maryland would not have been inundated with applications if it had not set up a good program.

"We have moved as fast as possible," Davies said. "The only delay that we have seen is because of our success."

ecox@baltsun.com

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