State lawmakers are pushing to revamp the Maryland's medical cannabis commission and award additional licenses to prospective growers, processors and dispensaries in hopes of getting more minority-owned businesses involved in the fledgling industry.
Two bills backed by the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland would make major changes to the state's cannabis program, including adding seven new licenses for growers, seven for processors and 25 for dispensaries.
The winners would be scored on criteria that include racial diversity, according to Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who is one of the lead sponsors of the bills.
"That way, we could make sure that the industry has the diversity to reflect the racial composition of the state that doesn't currently exist," said Glenn, who is also chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus. She's been a strong proponent of medical marijuana, and the state's cannabis commission is named for her late mother, Natalie M. LaPrade.
The bills also would disband the cannabis commission and recreate it as a division within the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The new members of the division would be subject to approval by the state Senate and would receive a stipend, which Glenn said is necessary to give the commission greater authority and make it more transparent.
The chairman of the commission called the move "insulting."
"To introduce a bill that calls for dismantling the commission is not only an insult to the dedication of the commissioners who have volunteered an exorbitant amount of time to the program, but threatens the quality of the program, and its very existence," Dr. Paul W. Davies, commission chairman, said in a statement.
Davies said the commission will release data next week that shows the companies participating in Maryland's medical marijuana industry have "significant racial and ethnic diversity, as well as female participation."
Davies said he plans to ask the state Office of the Attorney General to weigh in on whether the proposed changes to the cannabis commission would be constitutional.
Companies that won preliminary licenses to grow medical cannabis are opposed to awarding more licenses at this time.
"We have made significant investments in our business operations based on the state's commitment that only 15 grower licenses would be awarded before a future market analysis was conducted," the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association said in a statement issued Friday afternoon. "The Maryland General Assembly should not break its commitment and arbitrarily seek to increase the number of licenses at this early stage."
The association also noted that Maryland has had "one of the slowest rollouts" of medical cannabis.
Maryland lawmakers first approved medical cannabis in 2013, but only allowed academic centers to grow and dispense the drug. After that program failed to get off the ground, lawmakers revised the law to create a private industry.
The first preliminary licenses for companies to grow, process and distribute medical cannabis were issued late last year, and almost immediately, concerns were raised that few minority-led companies won licenses.
The cannabis commission relied on a blind ranking of applicants by Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute to award the licenses. In two cases, the commission bumped up lower-ranked applicants in order to achieve geographic balance.
While the law legalizing medical use of cannabis said there should be racial and geographic diversity in the program, the commission did not use race as a factor on making decisions. The commission relied on advice from the attorney general's office that race can't be a determining factor if there hasn't been a proven pattern of past discrimination.
The state awarded preliminary licenses for 15 growing facilities, 15 processing facilities and 102 dispensaries.
No companies have been awarded final licenses, and some companies that lost out have filed lawsuits challenging the commission's decision.
Glenn said some black lawmakers advocated for scrapping all of the licenses and starting the process all over. Allowing companies to keep their licenses while adding more represents "a huge compromise," she said.
"We understand the time and dollars and energy that has been put forth by the companies that were awarded the licenses," Glenn said. "We don't blame them for the problems that exist."
Companies involved in the cannabis industry are closely watching what happens in Annapolis, especially because even more bills might be filed, said Darrell Carrington, director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association. His group includes companies that applied for licenses, as well as others who are linked to the industry, such as lawyers and consultants.
Carrington said his members have "a lot to digest" with the black caucus bills. His greatest concern has been making sure the licensing process isn't scrapped and re-started.
"That really could have delayed patient access," he said.
One of the black caucus-backed bills was introduced on Friday and the other will be introduced next week.
Glenn has a total of 58 sponsors in the 141-member House of Delegates. There are 11 sponsors in the 47-member Senate, where Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, is the lead sponsor.
The bills would require a three-fifths majority vote because they are emergency bills that would become law immediately if they are signed by the governor.