The Legislative Black Caucus is challenging the medical marijuana licensing process. (WJZ)
The Legislative Black Caucus plans to use any means necessary to stop Maryland's medical marijuana commission from issuing final licenses until more are awarded to minority-owned businesses.
"We will not be accepting crumbs," Del. Cheryl Glenn, chair of the caucus, said Friday at a forum in Annapolis.
"Do not think for one minute that anyone is going to move forward without minority participation. It ain't going to happen," she said.
The Baltimore Democrat presided over nearly three hours of testimony from African-American, Hispanic and female business owners who were not among the preliminary winners of 30 lucrative licenses to grow or process medical marijuana in the state.
The caucus has not decided on a single course of action, but it is weighing filing an injunction against the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, expanding how many growing licenses are available, scrapping the entire application process and introducing emergency legislation to strip authority from the commission.
"This is a fast-moving train," said Glenn, who was one of the architects of the state's long-delayed medical marijuana program. She later added that the caucus would primarily rely on political pressure and not the Maryland court system.
The black caucus has 45 members and represents a substantial political force in the 188-member General Assembly. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has promised to do what he can to help, but he has no direct authority over the medical marijuana commission.
Although a state law required the medical marijuana panel to actively seek racial diversity, the commission ultimately relied on a "blind" process that did not. It did give significant weight to geographic and other factors that failed applicants said were discriminatory.
Most of the preliminary licenses to grow or process marijuana went to companies led by white men. More than 800 preliminary licenses to dispense the drug are still pending, and commission Chairman Paul Davies has promised to work with the attorney general's office to better ensure diversity moving forward.
But the black caucus said Friday that members will stand in the way of any of the preliminary licenses getting final approval.
The promise to fight the process drew some concerns about whether it would further delay getting the drug to patients, who have been waiting for years. The state's first attempt to create a medical marijuana program, in 2013, failed, and was replaced by a 2014 law that is still not implemented. The national Marijuana Policy Project advocacy group ranks Maryland's program as the slowest to get off the ground.
"We have to come up with something that moves quickly," said Darrell Carrington, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Industry Association and a consultant for some companies who won licenses and others who lost. "I don't know if starting all the way over again from scratch is fair to the patient."
Baltimore Del. Nathaniel Oaks, a Democrat, replied, "Fairness is out the backdoor already."
Lawmakers and several advocates said letting other businesses move forward while leaving African-American ones behind — even if they are later awarded licenses — was unacceptable.
Those minority-owned companies, they said, would be put at a disadvantage if they didn't start at the same time in what's expected to be a multibillion-dollar national industry. One recent and widely cited report by California-based research group ArcView projects national sales of legal marijuana to hit $21.8 billion by 2020, generating as much or more revenue annually as the National Football League.
Some companies that lost out on Maryland licenses complained Friday that unfair regulations stacked the deck against them. They said some required unnecessary experience that is uncommon for black business owners. Others suggested they were expected to have access to huge amounts of capital.
"The notion that we have to be multimillionaires to enter this industry is ridiculous," said Ovetta White, who said her company, Sugarloaf Enterprises, did not win a preliminary license to grow marijuana in Montgomery County.
The commission has not released all of the details about how it made ranking decisions, a process that took months longer than many anticipated.
Glenn and other caucus leaders on Friday debated the best way to increase minority-owned businesses in the industry. They said they would seek more oversight of the commission in the future, regardless of the outcome of the licensure issue.
"The process was flawed," said Del. Darryl Barnes, a Democrat from Prince George's County.
The medical marijuana commission relied on a double-blind ranking system that it outsourced to the Regional Economic Studies Institute, known as RESI, at Towson University. Top companies were selected without regard to the identities of the applicants.
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Since preliminary licenses were announced last month, leaders of the commission acknowledged that they should have found a way to increase diversity among the winners of growing and processing licenses. They are working with Maryland's attorney general to determine a legal way to do so when they now turn to awarding dispensary licenses.
Two companies that were originally ranked in the top 15 of grower applicants by RESI were bumped out as winning bidders to make room for others who would add geographic diversity among growers.
One of those companies, GTI Maryland LLC, has 30 percent African-American ownership. The group's general manager said Friday that the commission let geographic diversity trump merit.
"We were passed over for a lower-scoring company," said Sterling Crockett, the general manager.