Leaders of the state's medical marijuana commission are meeting with Attorney General Brian E. Frosh next week to figure out how to achieve more racial diversity when the panel awards licenses to companies to dispense the drug.
The Medical Cannabis Commission has come under scrutiny because most of the 30 companies to which it has awarded preliminary licenses to grow or process marijuana are led by white men.
None of the companies that won lucrative licenses in the state's fledgling industry are led by African-Americans. About a third of the state's population is African-American.
Another 811 applications for up to 94 dispensary licenses are pending. They are being reviewed and ranked without regard for the identity of the applicants.
Commission Chairman Paul Davies said Thursday that he and executive director Patrick Jameson will discuss with Frosh legal ways to assure racial diversity among those winners.
"We want to achieve as much minority participation as absolutely possible," Davies said.
A spokeswoman for Frosh confirmed the meeting. It follows comments from the Democratic attorney general's office that the commission could have done more to achieve racial diversity in the first place.
Davies released a letter Thursday defending the commission for not taking race into account when it awarded 15 preliminary licenses for growers and 15 preliminary licenses for processors last month.
The law that allowed the creation of a medical marijuana industry in the state directed officials to consider applicants' race when weighing license applications. But assistant attorney general opined last year that considering race or ethnicity would be unconstitutional, and the commission dropped the requirement.
In a letter to Del. Christopher R. West, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe suggested that considering race or ethnicity would be constitutional only to remedy past discrimination against minorities in the medical marijuana business.
The commission received 146 applications for licenses to grow medical cannabis and 124 applications for licenses to process it.
The applications — with companies' identifying information removed — were reviewed and ranked by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute before being sent to the commission. Commissioners then reviewed and voted on the applications, still with companies' identifying information redacted.
Those that were awarded preliminary licenses now must pay large licensing fees to the state and undergo a series of inspections before obtaining licenses to operate.
Davies said Thursday that the commission was under pressure to get medical marijuana to patients, and developing a method to take racial diversity into account could have delayed the process by as much as 12 months.
"We were forced to take out any minority weighting," he said. "We didn't really have a basis to develop a study."
The law said the commission should "actively seek to achieve" racial, ethnic and geographic diversity. In the end, the commission considered only geography after ranking the applications on their merits.
That approach drew criticism from minority applicants who did not secure a license, as well as concern from the Legislative Black Caucus, Frosh, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the black caucus, has asked Hogan to see what he can do to improve diversity among licensees.
She said the caucus would consider a legal challenge on the grounds that the law's diversity requirement was not met.
Losing applicants are also considering lawsuits.
A Hogan spokesman said Thursday that two of the governor's aides — Keiffer Mitchell and Christopher Shank — were assisting the black caucus with their concerns.