The chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission said he is optimistic that a new round of license approvals for growers and dispensaries will include awards to businesses owned by minorities.
Brian Lopez, chairman of the commission that will eventually award four grower and 10 processor licenses, told a gathering of cannabis entrepreneurs on Thursday that concerns among minority-led business groups that they’ll be shut out are based on rumors and a lack of information.
“Try not to listen to all the rumors that are out there,” said Lopez. “We’ve heard, I mean I’ve heard some really interesting rumors.”
“I’m excited about where we are,” he said.
The second round of license approvals, meant to increase diversity and give African Americans an opportunity to own a grower or processor license, remains under scrutiny by minority-led businesses. Leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus, who met with dozens of unsuccessful applicants Wednesday night, say they believe licenses are going to go to out-of-state interests using minorities as a front and cutting out local minority-owned businesses.
Rita Montoya, director of Americans for Safe Access Maryland, attended the Tea Pad networking event at the Hotel Rival Thursday night and asked Lopez if he could explain how African Americans could make up more than half the total number of marijuana arrests in 2018 but hold get no licenses in this second round.
“Why do you anticipate that there will not be?” Lopez asked Montoya.
A man in the back of the room shouted back: “Because it’s true.”
“We don’t know who got the licenses yet,” said Lopez.
The commission received more than 100 applicants for four grower licenses and more than 100 applications for 10 processor licenses.
“You can do the math. You had less than a 4 percent chance of winning a license, so there’s four, probably, happy applicants at the end of the day and 96 that are not happy,” said Lopez.
Lopez said 90 percent of the applications included minority participation as defined by the state Department of Transportation.
Bonus points are awarded to applicants who meet that state definition. Additional bonus points are awarded to groups disproportionately affected — Native Americans and African-American applicants.
“That’s the standard that we have, so we expect we’re going to have a lot of minority participation in these licenses just based off those numbers,” said Lopez.
Applicants in the last week were notified of their scores and rankings, but the commission has still not identified companies publicly.
Last week the commission delayed announcing the preliminary approvals, citing concerns about diversity from the Legislative Black Caucus. But Lopez did not initially disclose that the commission was also under a restraining order barring it from moving forward after one unsuccessful applicant made allegations the application process was mishandled.
On Wednesday, more than three dozen unsuccessful applicants met with the Legislative Black Caucus in Prince George’s County to discuss their concerns about the latest round of licensing.
“It seems as though there was some impropriety,” said Del. Darryl Barnes, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “We met with a substantial number of companies that gave us an earful on things that did not go as planned in terms of the application process.”
Barnes added that some companies complained they were approached by out-of-state interests to “act as figureheads.” He said he’s concerned some of those applicants will ultimately be successful.
“If that’s the case, we’re going to do everything we can to stop the process,” said Barnes.
Barnes and Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, said last week that they wanted to see more local, minority-owned businesses awarded licenses rather than companies that can beef up their appearances with African Americans fronting operations.
Lopez said Thursday that the commission was careful in how it created the application and vetting process to make it “legally defensible.”
“There’s no such thing as a set aside,” said Lopez, speaking to the networking group. “You can’t do a set aside for licenses. You can’t set aside licenses for African Americans or any group. The goal was to make it a defensible application so that’s where we worked with the attorney general’s office. There’s been applications in other states that have not held up that basically awarded set asides to minorities.
“I’m more optimistic than you,” he said. “I haven’t seen the rankings, but I think we are going to have a lot of minority participation. “