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Battle lines drawn on potential changes to Maryland medical marijuana law

Battle lines are being drawn on whether to change Maryland's medical marijuana law.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn is co-author of the Maryland state law that permits the use of marijuana for medical purposes. She says that measure needs an overhaul.

Michael Bronfein is chief executive of a company that was awarded one of the state's 15 licenses to grow medical marijuana. He says the law is the best in the country, and no changes are needed.

The two took part Wednesday in a panel discussion sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee. While their comments were cordial, their messages showed where battle lines on medical marijuana are being drawn for the 2017 General Assembly session.

Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, expressed the group's indignation that no African-American-majority companies were awarded licenses by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

"We need to revisit what we did in the legislation," Glenn said. "We are not going to do this in such a jacked-up way."

She said specifics of corrective legislation have not been worked out, but one solution might be to expand the number of licenses beyond 15.

Bronfein, who heads Curio Wellness, said he opposes the idea. Any expansion of the number of licenses would dilute the value of the license that his company won. He called the 2014 law that set up the structure of a medical marijuana industry the best in the country.

"We have a process and we ought to let it play out for a year or two," Bronfein said. "We don't know that we need 15. Ten may be enough. ... Let the market decide."

Curio, which also won a license to process cannabis-based products, plans to grow marijuana plants in Baltimore County. Bronfein, a politically connected businessman who has donated to many campaigns, could be a formidable presence in Annapolis next year as lawmakers debate changes to the law.

He said expanding the number of licenses would be tantamount to voiding a contract between the state and the successful applicants.

"You may not like the outcome, but the process seemed to have integrity," he said.

The commission, empowered by the law Glenn co-wrote, awarded the 15 growers' licenses using a double-blind process in which researchers from Towson University ranked applicants without knowing their identities.

A commission subcommittee selected the 15 preliminary license winners strictly according to the rankings. Two days later, the subcommittee deviated from that system and replaced two of the top 15 with lower-ranked applicants — a decision ratified by the full commission.

The chairman of the subcommittee said the panel decided that the 15 it had selected did not meet the law's criteria for geographic diversity. The two companies that were displaced are now suing the commission.

Glenn expressed skepticism about the subcommittee's decision and said the law should provide for more oversight of the commission.

"We certainly need to do something about the commission," she said. "Everyone needs oversight."

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who sponsored the law in the Senate, said he's puzzled by the commission's reasoning when the requirements for racial and geographic diversity were in the same sentence of the law he sponsored in the Senate.

"It would not make sense to overthrow racial diversity for geographic diversity," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Raskin, who is now running for Congress, did not express an opinion on how to fix the law. He said he hopes to join efforts on Capitol Hill to change tax laws that now prevent marijuana dispensaries from writing off their business expenses.

Bronfein agreed that federal law needs to be changed. He said the federal tax code makes the dispensary level of the emerging medical cannabis industry the least economically viable.

Caryn York, senior policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force, said her organization will be seeking other changes to the Maryland law.

York, whose organization advocates for employment of people who have been incarcerated, said she wants the legislature to overrule a regulation adopted by the commission that denies licenses to individuals who have a felony drug conviction on their records.

She said that provision denies economic opportunities to people who have served sentences for common, nonviolent crimes such as possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

She said the regulation has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans because they are much more likely than others to be arrested for marijuana possession.

"We are, in effect, making it difficult for African-Americans and the like to have access to this industry," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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