Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday ordered a study of whether minorities face a disadvantage when seeking to participate in the state's nascent medical marijuana industry.
Such a study is considered a prerequisite for giving preference to African-Americans and other minorities when awarding licenses to grow, process or distribute the drug.
Black-owned businesses were shut out in the first round of 15 preliminary license awards to grow cannabis plants, despite a state law requiring the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to "actively seek to achieve" racial diversity among license winners. The commission said it didn't consider racial diversity because the Maryland Attorney General's Office advised the panel it could not constitutionally consider applicants' ethnicity without a disparity study.
Since then, the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus has demanded that African-American-controlled businesses be involved in the potentially lucrative industry.
The caucus' desire for a legal fix was frustrated this month when legislation failed on the last night of the Assembly's annual 90-day session. That failure, the result of disagreement between the Senate and House of Delegates, has prompted the caucus to call for a special session.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor's order does not indicate that a special session will be called. He said that is still up to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The governor can order a special session, but has said he would do so only if Miller and Busch agree on how to change Maryland's medical marijuana law.
Busch and Miller had previously called on Hogan to order the disparity study. Such a study would have been required by the legislation that failed.
Alexandra Hughes, a spokeswoman for Busch, said the speaker is pleased the governor is moving forward with the study so the legislature can consider all of the available information. She noted that Busch supported two bills passed by the House that would have encouraged minority participation in the medical marijuana industry.
Miller could not be reached for comment Thursday. During the session, he supported a bill that would require the commission to issue additional licenses, and to favor minority-led companies when picking the winners of those licenses. But he also wanted two highly ranked companies that were bumped from obtaining licenses due to geographic considerations to receive licenses.
Busch wanted the five additional licenses to be targeted for minority-led companies, but did not support granting licenses to specific companies.
Officials with one of the companies that was passed over for geographic reasons, GTI of Maryland, said this week that they would not insist on legislation that would grant them a license. The company is pursuing a lawsuit against the state over the licensing process, and is also seeking a change to state law that would allow companies to apply for licenses if initial winners drop out. An attorney for GTI said a special session to pass such legislation could be called before a disparity study is completed.
Mayer said the governor's order to complete the study was prompted both by his and the black caucus' concerns. Del. Cheryl Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the caucus, could not be reached for comment. She said this week she is circulating a petition among senators and delegates asking Hogan to call a special session beginning June 15.
The study will be coordinated by the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs and the Maryland Department of Transportation, with help from the state cannabis commission.
The Department of Transportation handles the certification of minority business enterprises in Maryland.
Hogan did not set a timetable for the completion of the study, but directed Jimmy H. Rhee, the special secretary of minority affairs, to make sure the study is completed "as expeditiously as possible."
"As the issue of promoting diversity is of great importance to me and my administration, your office should begin this process immediately in order to ensure opportunities for minority participation in the industry," Hogan wrote to Rhee.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.