Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) have joined black state lawmakers in expressing dismay about the lack of diversity in Maryland’s burgeoning medical-marijuana industry.
At the same time, the head of the legislative black caucus is calling for legislation to ban elected officials from taking jobs in the industry. Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), who was instrumental in passing the bill that legalized medical marijuana, said she’s angry that another leader in that effort later joined a company seeking a license to grow, process and sell the drug, without publicly making clear his dual roles.
The controversies are the latest snags for Maryland’s potentially lucrative medical-marijuana industry, which has been plagued by multiple delays and missteps since legislation to legalize cannabis for medical use passed in 2013.
This month, state regulators cleared 15 companies to grow marijuana and 15 companies to process the plant into medical products. None of the businesses approved for cultivation are led by African Americans, even though the legislation seeks to create a racially diverse industry in a state where nearly a third of the population is black.
Glenn raised the issue in a Thursday meeting with Hogan. She pushed the governor to call for a special legislative session this fall to address minority ownership, perhaps by authorizing regulators to award additional licenses to minority-owned companies.
The legislature’s next regular session begins in January.
“We are not going to accept licenses being awarded and people getting an unfair advantage in this billion-dollar industry with no minority participation,” Glenn said.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer says the governor agrees that racial diversity in the new industry is important but will not call a special session. Instead, the governor has deployed his chief lobbyist, Chris Shank, and adviser Keiffer Mitchell to explore options to address the issue.
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission operates independently of the governor’s office, which has no say in who gets marijuana licenses but appoints the commission’s members and executive director.
The law legalizing medical marijuana says regulators should “actively seek to achieve” racial, ethnic and geographic diversity in the industry.
The commission awarded preliminary licenses based on rankings from outside reviewers, who read and scored application materials with the names of people involved redacted. The commission did consider geographic diversity, moving up lower-ranked applications to approve licenses for growers in Prince George’s and Worcester counties in an effort to ensure that cultivators were spread out across the state.
But the commission did not provide extra weight to minority-owned companies, citing a 2015 advice letter it received from the attorney general’s office that said race-conscious licensing in a new industry without a history of racial discrimination would probably be unconstitutional.
After Glenn and other black lawmakers raised concerns, the attorney general’s office said the commission should not have concluded from the letter that it would be wrong to take the race of prospective marijuana business owners into account.
Instead, Frosh spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said, the commission could have researched whether there is evidence of racial disparity in industries similar to medical marijuana.
If there is, she said, the commission would be justified in taking race into account.
Coombs said similar efforts have led to the state trying to expand minority participation in other new industries, including off-shore wind farming and gaming.
“The attorney general strongly believes that this industry should reflect the diversity of the state,” Coombs said of medical cannabis.
But Col. Harry Robshaw III, vice chairman of the commission, said this proposed approach to achieve racial diversity was news to the commission. He said the message from the office was crystal clear: It was too early to grant racial preferences.
“It’s frustrating that somehow we should have interpreted the letter differently,” Robshaw said.
Coombs said Frosh’s office has cleared marijuana regulators to develop outreach programs to attract applications from minority-owned companies.
On a separate issue, Glenn said she is considering legislation to bar lawmakers from working with medical-marijuana companies after learning that Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) had agreed to act as clinical director for one such company.
Glenn says the dual roles, revealed by The Washington Post last month, made her “livid” and tainted the process.
“I wasn’t pushing for medical marijuana to fatten my pockets, and I am disappointed that it is evidently something he was doing all along,” Glenn said. “It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”
Morhaim, a physician, says he’s not a formal employee or owner of Doctor’s Orders, which was granted preliminary licenses to grow and process the drug in Dorchester County and has dispensary license applications pending.
Maryland law does not forbid lawmakers from sponsoring or voting on legislation affecting industries in which they work, and Morhaim said he cleared his position with the General Assembly’s ethics adviser.
Morhaim, who has advocated for medical marijuana for more than a decade, did not return a call or email Friday seeking a response to Glenn’s criticism.