ANNAPOLIS — Opponents of an effort to expand the number of medical cannabis grower and processing licenses say a legislative effort to promote diversity will have the opposite effect and would likely benefit companies that already hold licenses.
The hearing on companion House and Senate bills put a spotlight back on an issue that ended the 2017 session in controversy and one that continues to keep a quick solution at bay.
“You don’t need to be Copernicus to see which way this bill is spinning,” said Ashley Colen Herr, co-owner of Hippocratic Growth, a medical marijuana dispensary in Queen Anne’s County.
Herr is opposed to proposed legislation that would expand the number of growing and processing licenses. Herr said she believes the new licenses will go to predetermined companies.
Identical House and Senate bills introduced earlier this year initially called for an additional five licenses for growers and 10 processing licenses. Amendments made to the House bill, sponsored by Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, would earmark two of those licenses for companies that already hold a growing or processing license, allowing them to “vertically integrate” or control growing and processing.
“This is a corrective bill,” Glenn said of the legislation. “We all know the travesty that happened last year.”
Glenn and Conway ended the 2017 session calling for the legislature to address concerns about the lack of diversity in the ownership in what is expected to be a lucrative industry. But some say the bills this year fall short of creating competition or diversity.
“It accomplishes neither of those goals,” said Joe Gaskins, president of the African-American Medical Cannabis Association, which opposes the legislation as currently written.
“We feel it should not be capped,” said Gaskins, who later asked for a bill that expands the number of growing licenses to 30.
Gaskins and others noted that the bill does not specifically legislate diversity issues.
Zenita Wickham Hurley, chief counsel for civil rights for the Office of the Attorney General, said diversity concerns would be better addressed in regulations than in the bill.
“It’s time-consuming,” Hurley said. “It’s complicated. It’s never been done before in the state of Maryland.”
Glenn’s bill and an unamended Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, were the subject of a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.
Conway, speaking to the committee, called for approval of the bill and for setting a June 1 deadline for applications with a 45-day review time for when the state medical cannabis commission would award new licenses — an effort she said would allow black-owned companies the opportunity to catch up with competitors who got a head start last year.
“We don’t need to evaluate,” said Conway. “The evaluation has already been done. We’re at the implementation stage.”
Conway said she would ask the committee to add one additional growing license, something Glenn said she believed the House of Delegates would ultimately support.
The efforts of Glenn and Conway have the support of the state association of licensed growers and processors.
“It’s no secret the industry has been attacked with several lawsuits,” said Jake Van Wingerden, chief officer of SunMed Growers and chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association.
Van Wingerden said the proposed changes and additional licenses would bring stability to the market and for the new owners who will receive the new licenses even as opponents predicted a new round of legal action.
The hearing Tuesday highlighted the state’s continued difficulties in establishing a medical cannabis program.
The bills sponsored by Glenn and Conway were billed as a solution to resolving the issues of a lack of diversity in ownership in the fledgling industry and the lawsuits that have been filed and withdrawn in the last year. An optimistic Glenn, speaking in January at the start of the 2018 session, pointed to a fast-tracked hearing as a good omen and predicted the bill would be on Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk by the end of that month.
Now, with three weeks left until the close of session, the bill appears poised to be another late-session nail-biter.
Sen. Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery, raised concerns about capping the number of licenses and concerns about the already high cost of medical marijuana in the state in places where it has already become available.
“Why do we have caps on licenses at all?” said Feldman. “It’s a free market, so it should be whatever the market will bear.”