ANNAPOLIS — The lead sponsor of a bill that seeks to address racial disparities in the state’s medical cannabis industry says she wants her bill on the governor’s desk by the end of the month.
The lightning legislative pace of the bill called for by Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore and lead sponsor of House Bill 2, could be slowed. Lawmakers now must address a myriad of concerns, including those expressed by competing groups of businesses who narrowly lost out on a license or now want to get in on the action.
Glenn, however, told her colleagues Monday that time was of the essence and called for quick passage of the bill, which got a hearing on just the fourth day of session.
“We are very committed to ensuring Maryland will be a role model state when it comes to diversity in this multibillion-(dollar) industry,” Glenn said.
Currently, there are no minority-owned licensed growers in Maryland, a state where nearly one-third of the population is black. Nationally, only about 1 percent of licensees are minority-owned businesses, Glenn said.
The bill calls for the creation of five additional licenses grower licenses above the current 15 already created and for instituting a 10-year moratorium on the issuance of new licenses.
The bill proposes dissolving the current 16-member medical cannabis commission and replacing it with a new nine-member panel.
The bill also removes felony drug convictions as a disqualifier if the conviction or probation is more than seven years old, a provision Glenn said is modeled after the state’s casino gaming laws.
Finally, the bill calls for the creation of a compassionate use fund intended to help low-income patients access the drug, which will not be covered by insurance or Medicaid.
“We never intended this to be a rich man’s drug,” Glenn said, adding that the fund would be financed by licensing fees collected from growers, processors and dispensaries and not with state funds. Low-income patients could then benefit “from the fruits of this miracle medicine,” she said.
The legislation proposed by Glenn this year comes after attempts to expand the number of licenses died in the House of Delegates in the final seconds of the 2017 session.
Glenn said the majority of the bill was based on the failed legislation from last year.
“We made some changes to that bill based on where we are now,” Glenn said.
A provision that would have set aside two licenses for growers who were bumped out of the original 15 awards because of geographic diversity concerns by the commission is absent this year.
Two lawsuits that challenge Maryland’s medical marijuana program continue to work their way through court.
‘One year behind’
The changes proposed in the legislation don’t go far enough for some, such as Vicky L. Ivory-Oren, a Greenbelt attorney who unsuccessfully applied for a growing license.
“There was a promise last year, but this bill does not meet that promise,” said Ivory-Orem, who criticized the bill for lacking specifics. “This bill puts a cap of 20 licenses and makes no reference to the issuing of additional licenses for minorities.”
Billy Murphy, a prominent Baltimore criminal defense attorney who worked with a Prince George’s County group, told lawmakers the bill was “extremely important to the black community.”
“The time is now for this,” Murphy said. “It ought to be expedited because we’re now one year behind everyone else.”
But Glenn’s timeline could be difficult to meet as a number of groups, including former and prospective applicants and even the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, say changes are needed. A hearing on identical legislation in the Senate has not been scheduled.
Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission Chairman Brian P. Lopez said that while the commission supports diversity in licensing, some of the changes — including the dissolution of the commission by June and its reconstitution to include nine members appointed primarily by the governor and legislature — could cause further delays in issuing new licenses.
“It would create uncertainty in the market and stall the progress we’ve already made in the market,” Lopez said.
As it stands, Lopez said, the commission would likely need to develop a new application — a process that could take up to a year.
Meanwhile, applicants who just missed out on a license found themselves at odds with prospective applicants as each jockey for a process that would either protect their place in line or open the door to more competition.
For others such as Darrell Carrington, a lobbyist and policy director for Green Will Medical Cannabis, the state, with 20,000 registered patients, is already well below the number of growers needed to ensure a steady supply to the market.
Nationally, Carrington said the industry standard is one grower per 1,000 patients. And while the number of registered patients is below expectations currently, Carrington said, it is expected to climb to 40,000 in the next year and double again in the following year.
Increasing the number of growers would likely reduce the cost of the product in Maryland, he said.
“We have an inadequate number of growers, a woefully inadequate number of growers,” Carrington said. “I don’t think the price is going to come down out of the goodness and good nature of the industry.”
For others, such as Paige Colen, chief operating officer officer of Queen Anne’s County-based Hippocratic Growth dispensary, the moratorium smacks of protectionism that will limit innovation and competition.
“If you ask the Coca Cola Company if we should get rid of Pepsi, what do you think they would say?” Colen asked.