A group of Maryland lawmakers met with medical marijuana regulators on Tuesday and urged them to halt the program until a dispute over racial diversity in the burgeoning industry is resolved.
But officials with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission retorted that they are wary of additional delays in making the drug available to patients, according to a lawmaker and commission staffer present at the meeting.
Regulators in August awarded the first batch of preliminary licenses to grow and process medical marijuana — with the drug expected to hit dispensary shelves in summer 2017, four years after it was first legalized.
None of the 15 companies given initial clearance to grow cannabis are led by African Americans — who make up nearly a third of Maryland’s population — even though the medical marijuana legalization law calls for regulators to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity in selecting cultivators.
The selected companies have up to a year to complete another round of vetting and pass an inspection of their cultivation centers before they can starting growing marijuana.
The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland doesn’t want the commission to authorize those operations while lawmakers are still drafting emergency legislation to help more minority-owned businesses participate in the potentially lucrative market.
“It’s taken us almost 40 years to get here to this point. A smaller delay to get it right, in my opinion, is the right thing to do,” Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, told The Washington Post.
The caucus’s meeting with marijuana regulators was the first face-to-face discussion about the diversity issue. It was closed to the public and media.
Marijuana regulators said they didn’t take race into account when awarding business licenses because of advice from the attorney general’s office suggesting it would be unconstitutional without a proven history of racial disparities.
The Medical Cannabis Commission has since agreed to work with lawmakers and the attorney general’s office to figure out alternative ways to boost diversity in the industry. Staff is also reaching out to preapproved growers, some of whom are still raising capital, for more detailed information about minority representation in their ownership and workforce.
Glenn says the caucus plans to commit to a specific legislative approach to diversifying the medical marijuana industry in November — such as by authorizing additional licenses to minority-owned companies.
The legalization of marijuana sales across the nation has also brought complaints that minorities are being shut out of the industry, even though they were disproportionately locked up for drug offenses.