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State consultant finds grounds to consider race in awarding medical marijuana licenses

A state consultant has determined that there are grounds to conclude that minorities are at a disadvantage in Maryland's fledgling medical marijuana industry.

The state’s medical marijuana commission has awarded 15 licenses to growers, but none of them to a minority-owned business.

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The General Assembly is considering a bill that would create five new licenses and require the commission to consider the race of applicants.

The consultant’s finding, released by Gov. Larry Hogan’s office Wednesday, is a key legal step toward allowing officials to weigh race when awarding any new licenses. Hogan ordered the study in April.

“Today’s findings are clear and unequivocal evidence that there is a disparity in the medical cannabis industry,” said Shareese Churchill, a spokeswoman for the Republican governor. “This study is an important part of the process to allow for increased minority participation in our state.”

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus and a leading advocate for more minority participation in the state’s new marijuana industry, said the finding will help whatever legislation the General Assembly passes withstand a court challenge.

“I’m ecstatic Maryland can move forward and be a beacon of light and show it is a serious issue, that everyone should be concerned about having diversity in a multibillion-dollar industry,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

To reach his conclusions, Jon Wainwright, a managing director at NERA Economic Consulting, looked to a previous disparity study his firm carried out for the state’s minority contracting system and applied those findings to industries connected to medical marijuana.

He wrote that the findings support “the use of race- and gender-based measures to remediate discrimination affecting minority- and women-owned businesses in the types of industries relevant to the medical cannabis business.”

Such disparity studies are commonly used in government contracting to provide a justification for considering the race or gender of bidders for jobs.

Civil rights advocates found the commission’s failure to award any licenses to black-owned businesses especially galling because African-Americans have disproportionately faced consequences from marijuana being criminalized.

Jake Van Wingerden, the chairman of CANMD, a medical marijuana trade group, said his group supports legislators’ efforts to diversify the industry.

“If the findings of the study reinforce that need, we hope the General Assembly will move forward” with a new law, Wingerden said through a spokeswoman.

While there is widespread agreement among legislative leaders that African-Americans should have a greater stake in the industry, a hearing Monday in Annapolis revealed that a proposed remedy faces concerns over the length of a moratorium it would create on new licenses being issued and the timeline for getting minority firms approved.

A previous attempt to reach a compromise during last year’s legislative session failed on the final day of the lawmakers’ session in Annapolis.

Medical marijuana first went on sale in the state in December, but growers have struggled to meet the demand generated by some 19,000 registered patients.

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