Black caucus issues 'ultimatum' on medical marijuana

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Legislative Black Caucus stepped up its demand Wednesday for a special General Assembly session to address a lack of diversity in the medical marijuana industry, saying that failure to do so would effectively shut out African-Americans from a lucrative business.

The caucus renewed its call for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to summon legislators back to Annapolis to approve a bill expanding the industry in a way that was likely to grant at least five new marijuana-growing licenses to minority-owned firms.

But the group added a new demand, insisting that Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch persuade a majority of the General Assembly to sign a petition recalling themselves to Annapolis to pass the caucus's top priority this year.

If the leaders refuse, the 51-member caucus will not cooperate with Democratic leaders, caucus chair Del. Cheryl Glenn said at a news conference in Baltimore.

"How can the Democratic Party pass anything in the legislature without us? How can they be successful in the next election without us? They won't, unless they resolve this," said Glenn, a Democrat from Baltimore.

"And yes, I'm putting the ultimatum out there."

A bill that would have issued seven additional medical marijuana-growing licenses died in the final minutes of the General Assembly session Monday night, primarily because Miller and Busch did not agree on whether two licenses should be granted to companies suing the state.

Miller and the Senate backed a version of the bill that automatically awarded medical marijuana-growing licenses to two companies that ranked in the top 15 applicants but were not given one of the 15 preliminary licenses issued by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

Miller said he wanted those firms to have a licenses because they had a strong case against the state, and giving them licenses would prompt them to drop their cases.

Busch objected to a law the awarding lucrative licenses to specific companies. But he agreed late Monday to bring Miller's version to a vote in the final minutes of the session. It was not approved before the midnight deadline to adjourn.

Both leaders supported the main priority of the caucus, which is issuing five additional licenses in a process that could favor minority-owned firms. The caucus' demands Wednesday prompted dueling statements from Busch and Miller.

Both called on Hogan to issue an executive order to study whether minority business owners face a disadvantage getting into the medical marijuana industry. Such a study was called for in the failed legislation and required before the state could consider race in awarding licenses.

Miller said he would support a special session if there were agreement in advance to back the bill he supported.

"In order to resolve all of the problems surrounding the flawed roll-out of the program, I would support the rare event of a one-day special session, as I believe we could expeditiously pass a bill representing what was eventually supported by both chambers but that the House could not get passed by midnight," Miller said in a statement.

Busch said he'd also support a special session, as long as everyone agreed to back the legislation he supported. He also called on the commission not to issue any further licenses and to give a more detailed public accounting of why it did not give those two companies preliminary licenses in the first place.

"Given the cloud that has hovered over this entire program and the 2017 legislative session, we must be entirely transparent and give the public confidence in the decisions that we make," Busch said. "Every legislator needs this information so that we can make a responsible, transparent decision, subject to public scrutiny, before statutorily awarding or taking away any licenses."

A spokesman for Hogan said he would look into conducting a disparity study but would not say whether the governor intended to intervene, recall the legislature or negotiate a deal between legislative leaders.

"This is between the president and speaker, and it appears they are moving even further apart," spokeswoman Shareese Churchill said.

ecox@baltsun.com

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