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Md. black caucus wants black privilege for medical marijuana licenses

Op-ed: Md. black caucus substitutes black privilege for white privilege in approach to medical marijuana.

The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland should abandon its plans to use "any means necessary" to halt the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission from issuing final licenses to grow and process medical marijuana in the state until more licenses are awarded to minority-owned businesses. The efforts by the black legislators to change the rules of the selection process after it has been completed are unjustified and racially divisive.

No African-American applicant was chosen as a finalist to receive a license out of 15 growers and 15 processors. The caucus calls that outcome unacceptable, threatening to file an injunction and to introduce legislation requiring the commission to scrap a process that took almost a year to complete.

Why is the outcome unacceptable? The commission selected the finalists on merit by scoring the applications on a series of criteria without knowing the identity or race of the applicants. It relied on a double-blind ranking system that it outsourced to the Regional Economic Studies Institute, known as RESI, at Towson University.

Although the law establishing the commission required it to consider geographic diversity in awarding the licenses, the Maryland Attorney General advised the commission it could not consider the race of the applicants. Deliberately selecting black applicants over applicants of other races with higher scores would violate the constitutional rights of the other applicants.

There is a basic compact between white and black people upon which racial harmony depends. Here is my idea of what it is, or at least should be: White people owe black people the same thing that they owe everyone else: Equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination — a helping hand, a leg up, and a level playing field. In return, black people accept that they will succeed or fail on their own merit — like everyone else.

Bumping someone to the head of the line on the basis of race is not part of the bargain. There are circumstances when it may be legally justified, but this is not one of them. There has to be equal respect for the constitutional rights of people of all races for the deal to hold.

In terms of opportunity, let me make clear that I do not mean superficial equality of opportunity. For example, by almost all measures Maryland is the most affluent state and Baltimore is one of the poorest cities in the country; there is no greater economic disparity between a state and its largest city in the entire nation. Nearly a quarter of the people in Maryland living below the poverty line live in Baltimore, the population of which is 64 percent black. Of the 100 largest city or county jurisdictions in the country, Baltimore ranks dead last in the ability of a poor child to rise from poverty later in life. That is not equality of opportunity. There is no lack of resources in the state to provide the health, educational and social services necessary to improve that standing; there is only a lack of will. That has to change.

Therefore I might feel differently about the efforts of the Legislative Black Caucus to derail the licensing process if the efforts were likely to create job opportunities for the unacceptably high number of poor black men and women who cannot find decent paying jobs, especially in Baltimore. But that is not what this is about. The unsuccessful black applicants are not poor or disadvantaged.

Setting aside licenses for black applicants would benefit persons to whom members of the caucus turn when it comes time to finance their campaigns, not people who need help to rise from poverty. When you come right down to it, favoring a black applicant with a license on the basis of the applicant's race would do nothing more than substitute black privilege for white privilege.

There is a strong undercurrent of white resentment in Maryland and in the country that is being exploited by the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Some white resentment is based on prejudice, but some is just resentment. Bumping someone to the head of the line on the basis of race is something that either white or black people legitimately resent — depending on who is being bumped.

If the Legislative Black Caucus succeeds in its efforts, it will be seen for exactly what is: A triumph of racial politics over fairness. And it will be another piece of ammunition handed over to those who seek to exploit white resentment for their own political advantage.

David A. Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and also served for five years as an assistant state's attorney for Anne Arundel County. His email is dplymyer@comcast.net; Twitter: @dplymyer.

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