The House of Delegates on Saturday approved a compromise measure by a wide margin that would allow the state to issue 20 new licenses for growing or processing marijuana in a way that assures racial diversity among the firms that win them.
The Senate is expected to ratify the proposal on Monday, the final day of the General Assembly’s 2018 legislative session. The bill would then go to Gov. Larry Hogan for his signature.
“It’s great, great,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who has led the fight for an expanded role for African-Americans and other minorities who were left out in the first round of grower’s license awards. “We are breaking ground with legislating diversity.”
Hogan spokesman Amelia Chasse said the governor will review the bill closely before making a signing decision.
“The governor is glad the General Assembly appears to be making progress on fixing the disparity in the industry,” she said.
The medical marijuana compromise resolves an issue that has bedeviled the legislature for two years. General Assembly leaders opened the session in January with the hope that they could finish work on it by the end of that month.
But agreement was elusive. Lawmakers could not agree on how many licenses to award, whether to set some aside for specific companies, and how to favor minority applicants.
Sen. Brian Feldman, the lead Senate negotiator in talks to reconcile the differing House and Senate bills, said the compromise calls for the state’s medical cannabis commission to devise selection rules based on a study of the hardships minorities have faced getting into similar industries in the past.
The Montgomery County Democrat said the conference committee rejected the House bill’s language demanding minority inclusion without proof of an existing disparity in the market — an approach that could have opened the legislation to a legal challenge.
“We went as far as we could go within constitutional bounds,” Feldman said.
Firms owned by African-Americans lost out in the first round of bidding for medical marijuana growing licenses in Maryland. The legislature’s attempt to award them a percentage ended in failure on the last night of the session last year.
Feldman said the agreement would ensure that two companies that qualified for grower’s permits in the commission’s initial rankings but were later excluded will get preliminary licenses.
The commission bumped the two companies to 16th and 17th place on its list of 15 and elevated two lower-ranked rivals with the aim of greater geographic diversity. The excluded companies sued the state, contending the commission’s action was improper.
The Senate insisted during the negotiations on giving the two excluded companies licenses and prevailed, Feldman said.
Another four grower’s licenses will be added that would be open to new applicants. Lawmakers are hoping the commission’s rules will ensure that some of those permits go to firms controlled by minorities. But U.S. Supreme Court decisions have limited the ability of governments to use explicit racial preferences.
The commission had limited the number of licenses it issued to processors to 15 — a limit that was not set in law. The Senate wanted to set a maximum number of licenses at 30. The House wanted 25. The negotiators compromised on 28, Feldman said.
Lawmakers also made progress Saturday on a package of bills intended to grapple with violent crime, especially in Baltimore.
A House committee on Saturday morning declared the omnibus crime measure known as Senate Bill 122 dead. Delegates said they had made changes to remove provisions that aroused opposition, but were being inundated with demands to kill the legislation.
The number itself had become “toxic,” said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat on the panel.
The committee approved two bills, each incorporating parts of the initial comprehensive bill. Both were approved overwhelmingly by the House later in the day and will head to the Senate Monday.
One bill includes parts of the comprehensive bill that have been less controversial. It would expand the wiretapping authority of Maryland prosecutors to gun investigations. It would increase penalties for witness intimidation — a significant problem in Baltimore. It would also make it easier to prosecute sellers of fentanyl, a major contributor to a nationwide spike in overdose deaths, as volume dealers.
Another bill combines some of the more hotly disputed elements of the comprehensive bill with a “sweetener” intended to placate opponents and to attract the votes of moderate lawmakers.
It would keep the omnibus bill’s 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for a second offense of using a firearm during a felony — a sticking point for advocates of criminal justice reform — but combine it with an expansion of offenses that are eligible for expungement, the process for erasing a person’s criminal record.
Caryn York, executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force, said the first bill is “palatable.” But even though she and her allies favor expanded expungement, she said the provision wasn’t tempting enough to get them to support the mandatory minimums in the other bill.