Black Caucus may 'take a knee' if General Assembly leaders don't swiftly pass medical marijuana expansion

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus expects the General Assembly to swiftly pass a bill expanding the medical marijuana growing industry to include African-American firms.

And some members suggested the powerful voting bloc should “take a knee” if the legislation is not on the governor’s desk by the end of January.

During a wide-ranging public forum in Annapolis on Saturday, Caucus Chairwoman Cheryl Glenn for the first time outlined promises she said General Assembly leaders made about medical marijuana legislation, which is one of the group’s top priorities.

Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat, said staff for House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller assured her the bill will be among the first introduced when the legislature reconvenes Jan. 10.

She said it will receive an unusual, expedited joint House and Senate hearing on the first Monday of the session, which happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

If that does not happen, some members said the 50-member caucus — which makes up more than a quarter of the legislature and 40 percent of the Democratic caucus — will not cooperate with leadership on anything else.

“No one should expect us to have any trust if it doesn’t go the way that we have been told it will go,” Glenn said.

Her remark prompted several members of the caucus, less than half of whom where present, to shout, “We take a knee!”

“We’re not going to go along to get along,” said Del. Bilal Ali, a Baltimore Democrat. “Lesson time is coming up.”

Spokeswomen for Busch and Miller, both Democrats, did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.

This summer, the presiding officers ultimately turned down the caucus’ request for a special session on the topic, but promised to support “emergency” legislation in January.

Black leaders in Annapolis were outraged in 2016 when the first 15 preliminary licenses to grow medical marijuana were announced and no firms led by African-Americans were among them.

African-Americans make up about a third of the state’s population, and the law legalizing medical marijuana instructed regulators to “actively” seek racial diversity when awarding the licenses. Some losing firms filed a lawsuit over the issue; it is still pending.

Since last year, the Black Caucus pushed for an expansion of the nascent medical pot industry, and wanted to create five new pot-growing licenses that would likely go to African-American firms. Legislation to do that advanced almost to passage this year but died without a final vote in the waning minutes of this year’s General Assembly session in April.

The last-minute and unexpected failure of the legislation prompted a strong rebuke from black leaders.

“We have not shirked away from calling it what it was, and we felt that, once again, black folks were put at the back of the line,” Glenn said Saturday.

Hogan, a Republican, directed his administration this spring to conduct a disparity study to document whether minority-owned firms face a disadvantage in the marijuana industry. Such a study is a legal prerequisite to awarding licenses that take into account the race of applicants.

Members of the caucus sharply questioned Hogan administration officials Saturday about why the study was taking so long and when it would be completed.

“Please note this: We have to do this analysis properly, objectively, and without any input from various stakeholders,” said Jimmy Rhee, Hogan’s adviser for minority business affairs. “This is not a quick analysis, this is a detailed dive into the demographics of businesses in the state.”

After repeated questioning by several legislators, agency officials said they wanted to complete it by the end of the year, but they offered no guarantees.

Del. Nick J. Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, asked Wu whether any disparity study undertaken by the state found that minority-led companies were on a level playing field with other firms.

“Not to my knowledge,” Wu said.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, another Baltimore Democrat, said he wanted the study to conclusively show that African-Americans did not have a fair shot at the new legal marijuana industry, and he wanted that established before public debate shifted to legalizing the drug for recreational use.

“I want this thing to be very comprehensive,” McFadden said. “Because somewhere down the line, I see a conversation about legalization, and I don’t want to be left waiting for a study.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed Jimmy Rhee’s comments to another member of the administration.

ecox@baltsun.com

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