General Assembly leaders have coalesced around a plan to issue an additional five medical marijuana growing licenses and increase the likelihood that several of those lucrative deals go to minority-owned companies.
The consensus emerging in Annapolis about how to revamp the state's fledgling medical cannabis industry also includes creating a "compassionate use" fund to help poor patients and veterans pay for the drug.
The deal, though, falls short of demands lodged by the influential Legislative Black Caucus, which wanted to disband the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission and put the licensing process on hold.
Black lawmakers were outraged in August when none of the 15 preliminary winners of licenses to grow marijuana went to firms owned by African-Americans — despite a state law mandating regulators consider racial diversity.
Maryland's medical marijuana program is among the slowest in the country to get off the ground and, in recent months, has been beset by lawsuits and legislative wrangling over how licenses should be awarded.
The beleaguered cannabis commissioners say the program is on the brink of becoming operational and, provided legislators do not cause delays, patients could start receiving the drug this summer.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch on Thursday said they agreed on a general framework that would award more licenses after a racial disparity study is completed and a new licensing system that considers minority ownership is enacted. The steps would increase the likelihood that new licenses would go to firms owned by minorities.
Both men, who are Democrats, emphasized the medical marijuana program needed to move forward as quickly as possible. They dismissed the concerns of Black Caucus Chair Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat who said the second round of license winners would be disadvantaged because the first would have time to gobble up market share.
Miller said of delaying the launch: "That's not reality."
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat leading the House's medical marijuana work group, said the deal hasn't been finalized, but lawmakers are thinking "first and foremost" of the patients.
"I feel some urgency to get the product out the door," he said.
Aides said Miller and Busch also plan to keep most of the existing cannabis commission intact and put a small — perhaps 1 percent — tax on medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries to help poor patients defray the cost of the drug.
Without commenting directly on the proposed plan, Medical Cannabis Commission Chairman Paul Davies said in a statement that the General Assembly should let the program get up and running before enacting changes that could cause further delays.
"The current group of commissioners have dedicated years of their lives and expertise, for free, to the state of Maryland," Davies said. "Legislators should be thanking these citizens."
The promise of new licenses has the potential to spark more lawsuits from companies who secured them in the initial round.
A group that represents most companies, the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association, issued a statement saying "our members relied on commitments from the state when making their business decisions, and it is reasonable for them to expect the state would honor those commitments."
Despite the broad agreement between Miller and Busch, they disagreed on whether two companies currently suing the state should be awarded preliminary licenses to grow marijuana for medical use.
Miller said he wants to award those companies licenses to make those lawsuits irrelevant, because both have a strong case against the state. The commission, hoping to achieve geographic diversity, removed two businesses that had ranked among the top 15 applicants in a double-blind study, and instead awarded preliminary licenses to lower-ranked applicants. The two companies that were originally in the top 15 sued the state.
"We'd like to end the litigation, because I'm not certain there would be a winner," Miller said.
Busch's chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes, and Rosenberg both said the House had not endorsed that plan.
More than a dozen bills to revamp the medical marijuana industry have been debated this year. Miller introduced his own Wednesday, and on Thursday employed a legislative maneuver to circumvent the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where medical marijuana bills have languished without consensus or a vote.
That committee's chairman, Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Bobby Zirkin, said he welcomed the shift because "the only thing that's important is getting medicine to patients. We're looking at nearly two decades that we've been floundering on this issue."
Miller said he expected swifter passage in the Senate Finance Committee, which traditionally oversees health insurance and some other health matters.
Miller's bill also includes a provision to bar any lawmaker from participating in the medical cannabis industry, akin to the prohibition on legislators working in the casino business. He included the provision after a Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, was reprimanded by the House for not fully disclosing that he was a paid consultant for a medical marijuana company.
Members of both parties in both chambers agree they must come to a resolution before the legislature's annual session adjourns on April 10.
"We've got to stop messing around and get something done," said Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican. "Because there are sick people who need this."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.