It’s no surprise that an effort to overhaul Maryland’s medical marijuana law and to help bring more diversity to the roster of state licensed growers is proving contentious. There’s far too much money at stake for it to be any other way. Nonetheless, there is no reason lawmakers can’t move forward quickly with a bill that addresses the broadly shared goals of bringing minority-owned firms into the lucrative industry while providing adequate supplies and protections for patients. Indeed, there’s every reason they should.
From the beginning, Maryland legislators wanted regulators to consider racial and ethnic diversity in awarding licenses for growers, processors and dispensers. The state’s medical marijuana commission did not do so, however, upon advice from the attorney general’s office that it could not provide such preferences without a study establishing a legal basis for doing so. Why the commission did not at that point request such a study is a mystery, but last year, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered that one be conducted, and, despite hopes that it could be quickly concluded, it is due by the end of the month. Whatever it may find, the state has every reason to move forward with an expansion in the number of grower’s licenses and a new application procedure that uses race-conscious policies to foster diversity, if possible, and race-neutral ones if not.
If anything is clear thus far about Maryland’s fledgling market for medical marijuana, it’s that we are not faced with a glut in supply. Most of the licensed growers have yet to bring a crop to market, and it’s entirely possible that some never will. If the legislature does nothing, the existing law — the one that was in place when all the licensed growers applied and the one on which their business models are based — called for the commission “to issue the number of licenses necessary to meet the demand for medical cannabis … in an affordable, accessible, secure, and efficient manner” as of June 1, 2018. Industry representatives testified at a House of Delegates hearing Monday that Maryland’s current retail prices for medical marijuana — ranging from $350 to $650 an ounce — are the highest in the nation, and the number of patients registered so far is expected to double to 40,000 within a year and eventually double again. Given that, there is every reason to expect that the commission would authorize more grower licenses this summer no matter what.
The legislation being pushed by the Legislative Black Caucus in an effort to bring more minorities into the industry would authorize five new grower licenses now but would then shut the door to new ones for at least six years and for as long as a decade. The bill also gives the Legislative Policy Committee the power to decide when a study on whether to increase the number of grower licenses will be conducted. No doubt, the existing licensees like that provision, as it limits their competition well into the next decade, and it would help the five new entrants into the industry to establish themselves. But it’s not in the best interests of patients, and it would shut out other potential new entrants into the business — including minorities — in the years ahead. The original legislation was right to leave decisions about how to balance supply and demand in the hands of the commission, not politicians who could be susceptible to influence by deep-pocketed special interests.
The commission has not been a paragon of efficiency and good judgment, and for that reason, it’s understandable that the legislation, which has its roots in a failed reform effort last year, disbands it and creates a new one as of June 1. But in recent months, Governor Hogan has replaced most of the members, and the group has a new executive director. Whether that will solve the problem, time will tell, but going forward with the plan to blow up the commission will certainly create new ones. It would stall for six months all progress on new applications and licensing. Given that the new commission chairman believes it will take a year to even put out a new application — and we certainly hope he and his fellow commissioners will do everything they can to speed that up — we can’t afford more delays.
Finally, the idea some have floated to speed up the process by picking new licensees from the pool of those firms whose applications ranked highly last time is a bad idea. The previous application included no information about race or ethnicity, and even if that could be corrected, it makes little sense to argue that the previous commission botched the process and then to base subsequent decisions on its work. We’ll get the best outcome in terms of fairness and in terms of providing for the needs of consumers by starting over.