Maryland legislators have passed a new bill to expand the state's medical marijuana program while also ensuring that minority business owners, who have so far been excluded by the state, are offered a chance to get a foothold in the new industry. This weekend, the state House of Delegates approved a new bill that will create 20 new licenses for medical cannabis cultivators and processors, while also mandating that the state's cannabis commission devises new guidelines to ensure that some of these licenses are granted to minorities.
Medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland back in 2013, but the state's first dispensaries did not open their doors until last December. The rollout of the program was delayed repeatedly by legal challenges arguing that the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) failed to consider racial and geographic diversity when granting these licenses, among other issues. Although about a third of all Maryland residents are black, all the state's medical cannabis licenses were originally awarded to white-owned businesses.
Last year, the state's Legislative Black Caucus proposed legislation that would expand the number of licenses offered to minority-owned businesses, but the bill failed on the last night of the legislative session. This year, however, an amended version of the bill was proposed again, and although legislators hoped to have the bill passed by January, it is currently nearing final approval.
The bill would add four cultivation licenses that will be available to new applicants, and will also increase the number of processing licenses from 15 to 28. The bill also requires the MMCC to devise new selection rules for these businesses to ensure that minorities have a fair chance at being accepted. "It's great, great," Delegate Cheryl D. Glenn, the bill's sponsor, said to The Baltimore Sun. "We are breaking ground with legislating diversity."
While Glenn is hopeful that the bill will help resolve the industry's diversity problem, other legislators have criticized the bill for reserving even more licenses for white-owned businesses. In addition to the licenses for new businesses, the bill also grants processing licenses to existing businesses that won cultivation licenses during the initial application process. The new bill also guarantees licenses to two companies that had sued the state for overlooking them due to their geographic location.
State Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings voted against the bill, arguing that there should be an investigation into why these two companies are being guaranteed licenses. "To me, it's a very dirty way of doing business," he said to The Washington Post. Vicky Ivory-Orem, an African American judge who applied and was rejected for a cultivation license, said that she had "mixed emotions" about the bill. "It's an all-white male industry, and it's a billion-dollar industry," she explained. "It's not just people who can afford lobbyists or go knock on a senator's door who should be able to partake — I'm not sure this bill fixes this."
The state Senate is expected to ratify the bill today, after which it will move on to Governor Larry Hogan to be signed into law. The governor's spokesperson, Amelia Chasse, told The Baltimore Sun that Hogan will review the bill closely, but is "glad the General Assembly appears to be making progress on fixing the disparity in the industry."