MD: Senators Debate Changes To Medical Cannabis Reform Bill That Would Expand Licenses

Photo Credit: Associated Press

As the General Assembly races through its final week in session, lawmakers are pushing to find common ground on a bill that would raise the number of medical marijuana growers and processors in the state. The measure died on the floor of the chambers at midnight during the 2017 legislative session.

The bill aims to reform Maryland’s nascent medical cannabis industry by making changes to the licensure board and, most significantly, adding grower licenses to settle pending lawsuits and address a lack of diversity in the first batch of 15 grower applications that received pre-approval to operate in the state.

A version of the bill was passed by the House of Delegates early last month and made it through the Senate committee process with relative speed and about half a dozen amendments.

But the Maryland Senate is considering more last-minute amendments to the bill — including one to address the criminal history of medical cannabis license applicants — which means the bill could end up against a tight deadline for the second year in a row. The legislative session adjourns Monday.

“What happened last year, it went down to the last night of the session because of amendments, pride, different reasons; it didn’t get done,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Tuesday, urging his colleagues to quickly work together through pending amendments. “… There are a lot of people that want this bill to fail completely. Some want it to pass with different postures. … And this cannot be where we were last year.”

At its core, the bill adds seven grower licenses to the state’s current 15 slots. Two of the new licenses will go to companies that were ranked among the top 15 proposals in the first round of medical cannabis grower licensing in 2016, but were bumped from receiving a license as the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission sought to create geographic diversity among the first licenses issued. A lawsuit filed by GTI against the commission is pending.

Green Thumb Industries, known as GTI Maryland, sought a license to grow in Frederick’s senatorial districts 3 and 4. Under the proposed bill, it and one other company that was bumped will receive two of the seven new grower licenses; the other five will be subject to approval under new regulations expected to be released June 1.

The bill also adds processing licenses, with an emphasis on awarding them to a licensed grower, if the grower applied for a processing license in 2016 and was among the top-ranked processing applications. One company that would benefit is HMS Health, one of two growers licensed to operate in Frederick County.

The Senate Finance Committee met Tuesday evening to consider potential further changes to the bill.

Among the items up for debate is a provision that would address the criminal history of license applicants. In the first round of licensing, applicants with a felony drug conviction were prohibited from gaining medical cannabis licenses.

A provision in this year’s bill passed by the House of Delegates would allow people with a felony conviction to apply if the violation happened more than seven years ago; anyone convicted under the state’s drug “kingpin” statute remained barred from getting a license.

An amendment from Carroll County Sen. Justin Ready (R) that would have maintained the licensing prohibition for anyone with a felony conviction narrowly failed to pass the chamber on Tuesday, garnering a 23-23 tie vote.

Ready put forward a second amendment that aims to extend the lifetime prohibition on licensure to people convicted as “volume dealers” under Maryland law, in addition to those prosecuted as kingpins. People convicted under Maryland’s volume dealer statute are those dealing with high quantities of controlled dangerous substances; the limits include 50 pounds or more of marijuana, 448 grams or more of cocaine or crack, and 28 grams or more of opium or any opium derivative, for example.

Discussion of that proposal, as well as a handful of other amendments, prompted senators to put off further debate on Tuesday, allowing the committee to consider the proposed changes.

Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery), the floor leader for the bill, said he and other committee members are in agreement with language to add a licensing prohibition for volume dealers; lawmakers are also considering whether language could be added to prohibit people that have been convicted of drug manufacturing.

No matter how the amendments relating to criminal history shake out, Feldman said the licensing commission still has the authority to deny an application for any “substantial reason” uncovered during the vetting process.

As of Tuesday evening, Finance Committee members were also considering amendments aimed at addressing whether to allow licensees that received pre-approval to operate but cannot receive local zoning clearance to relocate in a different area of the state. The committee was also debating the exact phrasing of limitations to employment in the industry by legislators or their family members.

The bill could be back on the Senate floor as early as Wednesday. Miller said he wanted to see the chamber’s final vote by Thursday to allow enough time for negotiators to settle differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The bill is an emergency measure, meaning it would take effect upon enactment by the governor.