Medical cannabis has grown into a $600-million-a-year industry in Maryland since the first pre-rolled joint was sold legally in 2017, but Black Baltimoreans are largely left out.
Baltimore, which is 62% Black, has 10 dispensaries. Some are locally owned. Others are owned by multistate corporations. None have majority Black ownership. And only one dispensary is located in a Black neighborhood.
Now, Maryland is poised to legalize adult-use cannabis, meaning more dispensaries, more jobs and more money.
Lawrence Brown wants to make sure that places like West Baltimore don’t get left out — again.
Brown is an author and former Morgan State University professor who wrote a book about redlining and economic segregation called “The Black Butterfly,” a term referring to Baltimore’s largely Black east and west sides.
“This is the same kind of apartheid that has existed in so many other industries,” Brown said of the lack of dispensaries in Black neighborhoods. “And this could have been avoided with this being a new industry.”
Brown lives in West Baltimore and uses medical cannabis. Although a resident of Hampden can walk to one of two nearby dispensaries and get a balm for joint pain, he said his neighbors must drive or take the bus.
He spoke to The Baltimore Sun in the parking lot of NorthWest Plaza, a shopping center on Northern Parkway in West Baltimore. Brown said he can envision a store there that legally sells a medical product to neighbors suffering from chronic pain or anxiety.
“We know from public health research that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by all kinds of disease and medical conditions. So nobody needs relief from pain, nobody needs relief from depression and anxiety more than African Americans,” Brown said. “The fact that this is the medical cannabis industry, and you don’t have [dispensaries] in Black neighborhoods in Baltimore City, that is a travesty.”
City Councilman John Bullock, who represents parts of West and Southwest Baltimore, said it’s not surprising that Black neighborhoods in the city don’t have dispensaries — but that doesn’t make it right. He said council should work with the city’s delegation of state lawmakers to make sure this pattern isn’t replicated if Maryland legalizes recreational cannabis.
“It is definitely an equity issue and something that must be addressed,” Bullock said.
Brown became interested in opening a dispensary last year when he read about a new diversity fund launched by Curio, one of the state’s biggest cannabis companies. Curio had pledged to create a $30 million fund to help women, minorities and disabled veterans overcome the biggest hurdle in the industry: capital. Founders can retain majority ownership of the business, while the fund contributes up to 93% of startup costs. (Curio said it’s currently evaluating more than 500 applications from across the country.)
Opening a dispensary can be lucrative — the median monthly revenue for a cannabis dispensary in Maryland was $450,000, or $5.4 million annually, state regulators said in a November report — but it’s also more expensive than other businesses. There are special rules for security and how to store and transport the cannabis, and few banks want to lend money for what is still a federally illegal business.
Brown knew he couldn’t raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to open a dispensary, but seeing Curio’s initiative gave him hope that he might raise just enough capital to participate. That’s when he looked at a map of dispensary locations and realized that much of Black Baltimore didn’t have one nearby.
Instead, nine of Baltimore’s 10 dispensaries are located in or on the edge of the city’s “white L,” a predominantly white swath of Baltimore that stretches from the top of the city down Charles Street to the city center, then east along the Inner Harbor to Canton.
“That’s where most of the resources are allocated in the city currently, so I wasn’t surprised to see the same pattern show up in cannabis dispensaries,” Brown said. “But it was disheartening because again like I say, this is a newer industry. There was a chance to get it right.”
By comparing dispensary addresses publicly listed by regulators and U.S. census data, Brown said he found that just 10 of Maryland’s 95 dispensaries are located in majority Black census tracts. Brown thought maybe he could be the first dispensary owner in West Baltimore, but before he could start drawing up a business plan, he realized another problem.
There are no available licenses.
Maryland has a tightly controlled cannabis industry. There are about 100 licenses for dispensaries, parceled out by Senate districts throughout the state. There are no available licenses for Brown in Baltimore, unless he were to buy an existing cannabis dispensary, a proposition that would cost million of dollars.
The state of Maryland was clearly trying to establish geographic diversity when it parceled out licenses by Senate district, Brown said, but racial makeup, opportunity and wealth can vary widely within a single Senate district.
A truly equitable cannabis industry means “bringing in businesses into communities that have been structurally redlined, sub-primed, marginalized, demonized,” Brown said.
“That was never achieved,” he said.
This year, Brown worked with Maryland Sen. Jill P. Carter, who represents a large portion of West Baltimore, to develop legislation that would allow license holders to open four dispensaries per license, making it more likely operators would want to open in minority neighborhoods.
“In so many of our minority and low-income communities, these dispensaries are simply nonexistent under our current law,” Carter said at a March 3 legislative hearing. “And we’re just seeking ways to create greater opportunities for people that need them in those neighborhoods.”
Tia Hamilton, the owner of Urban Reads, a Baltimore bookstore that specializes in books by Black and incarcerated authors, went to Annapolis to testify for the bill.
Hamilton told The Baltimore Sun that she believes having dispensaries in Black neighborhoods would reduce crime, add value to communities and create jobs. Instead of people leaving Black neighborhoods to spend their money elsewhere, a dispensary could bring customers into Black neighborhoods and build wealth there.
“It does us a service when we’re able to bring those kind of funds into the community,” Hamilton said. “It helps build other businesses. It gives [people] in those communities jobs.”
At the March 3 hearing, Brown tied the issue to drug criminalization. The criminalization of cannabis disproportionately harmed Black communities, Brown said, and the legalization is disproportionately benefiting white communities. According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Marylanders were twice as likely as white Marylanders to be arrested for cannabis possession in 2018.
Johannes Thrul is a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he studies substance use. Black communities don’t necessarily use cannabis more than others, Thrul said, but across the country, Black people are much more likely to be arrested due to cannabis.
“The big issue here is we have historically criminalized, in particular, Black communities, and they have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization,” he said.
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To make sure that Black communities can participate in the cannabis industry, Thrul said governments need to recognize there is a historic wealth gap, too, and include financing.
“The other aspect to consider is these programs need funding. In particular, it’s expensive to stand up a business,” Thrul said. “It’s not just giving out licenses, right? It’s making sure that people can also take advantage of those licenses.”
Brown said the bill was tweaked to address criticisms he heard at that March 3 Senate hearing. There was a fear it would allow out-of-state corporations to dramatically increase their market share. Brown said the latest version would ensure that new dispensaries open in areas affected by redlining and the War on Drugs.
The bill backed by Brown doesn’t appear likely to become law. “Crossover day” already took place in Annapolis, and lawmakers did not move the bill over to the House of Delegates. But Brown said he will push the issue in the next legislative session — or consider some form of legal action.
Lawmakers seem more focused on the legalization of adult-use cannabis. Brown fears such an expanded cannabis industry will skip over Black neighborhoods again unless lawmakers take targeted action. He doesn’t think the issue should be postponed any further.
“The longer this goes on, the more the damage, the harm and inequality is going to persist,” Brown said. “People can walk and chew gum at the same time. You can legalize and create recreational cannabis while making strong attempts to bring about cannabis dispensary diversity in geography. You can do both at the same time.”