“This is really, really complicated,” State Senator and co-chair of The Maryland General Assembly’s Marijuana Legalization Workgroup Bill Ferguson said back in June.
He was talking about unpacking the contingencies, exceptions, and all of the rest that goes into making cannabis legal for adult use in Maryland in 2020. But he might as well have been discussing the state’s cannabis industry as a whole, where business continued to boom while concerns about racial equity dogged growers and processors, patients, and legislators–and remain unresolved.
As reported by The Maryland Reporter, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) said that 2019 tax revenue generated from medicinal cannabis is estimated to be at $10,371,437 and total profits are around $242 million. In 2018, tax revenue was $3,508,494 and the total profits were $96 million. Into 2020, Maryland nears 100,000 certified medicinal cannabis patients. The overarching question though, when it came to cannabis cash in Maryland in 2019 was, “Who is profiting from cannabis and who isn’t and who should be?”
2019 kicked off with encouraging news that The Maryland General Assembly created The Marijuana Legalization Workgroup, made up of 20 legislators who would take a serious, year-long look at what it would take to make cannabis legal for adult use in the state of Maryland and all that it entailed. The assumption was that the workgroup’s recommendations would guarantee legalization legislation in 2020.
What made it so, as Ferguson said—who by the end of 2019 became Senate President—“really, really complicated” was ensuring racial equity among growers and processors, and the costly endeavor of expunging the records of people with cannabis charges. The workgroup other co-chair, Delegate Kathleen M. Dumais Dumais agreed.
“If we legalize something that somebody has been convicted of, we obviously need to get rid of the conviction off their record,” Dumais said. “And we may not have the right process in place at the moment but that’s the goal and I think that was the general consensus from the work group.”
Maryland Matters observed that the meeting where Ferguson declared legalization “complicated” took place on June 25, 2019—the same day that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the legislation making cannabis legal in Illinois. By November, the Chicago suburb of Evanston presented a racial reparations-based “social equity provision,” precisely the sort of plan the workgroup wrestled with figuring out: Evanston would prioritize black growers and use tax money generated by cannabis sales towards expungement fees.
The workgroup then, often seemed behind the curve. At an August information session, they volleyed fairly rudimentary questions and concerns: how to ascertain how much revenue legal cannabis could generate; how to deal with allowing (or not allowing) towns from preventing cannabis businesses from opening up; the issue of “gifting”; and again, racial equity. By November, the workgroup announced it would not be recommending legalization in 2020.
“The consensus is we’re not recommending legislation this session to legalize adult use,” Dumais said. “We are still in the investigative mode.”
Such a circumspect approach to legalization—especially if they want to make Maryland’s legalization racially equitable—makes sense for the workgroup: Maryland has a fairly poor track record when it comes to issues of racial equity surrounding its medicinal cannabis rollout. Back in 2016, the Legislative Black Caucus called attention to the fact that black-owned dispensaries did not receive any of the initial 15 medicinal cannabis licenses. A racial disparity study, “Business Disparities in the Maryland Market Area,” followed and it revealed, “findings [that] are consistent with results that would be observed in a discriminatory market area.”
By 2018, delegate and then-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus Cheryl Glenn introduced House Bill 02 that would establish 20 more licenses and account for race in the application process.
“One-third of the population of the state of Maryland is African-American, and it is the African-American population that has been for generations disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws,” Glenn said in 2018. “So obviously we want to get those new licenses in the hands, to the degree that we can, of African-American–owned companies.”
Into 2019, racial disparity concerns remained. Glenn and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus demanded the process be investigated and asked for the entire licensing process to be put on hold. Delegate and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus Daryl Barnes wrote in an October letter to Maryland Attorney General that, “to date, there is only one black owned company with a Grower and a Processor license (still in the Pre-Approval status), operating in the State of Maryland.”
Around the same time, new licenses were put on hold after cannabis company Remileaf had been removed from license consideration because Remileaf claimed, the MMCC did not process their application properly. MMCC said Remileaf missed the application deadline. Remileaf sought a temporary restraining order that would stop the MMCC from giving out licenses. A judge granted the restraining order just as MMCC was set to award licenses to four growers and 10 processors.
Then in December, Cheryl Glenn, who had been rallying behind medicinal cannabis and accounting for racial equity for years, was federally-charged for fraud and taking bribes tied to among other things, legislation expanding the number of much-coveted medicinal cannabis licenses in Maryland. According to the federal indictment, Glenn took bribes from a still unidentified business owner ensuring the owner she would be, “voting in favor of House Bill 2, which increased the number of medical marijuana grower and processing licenses that were available to an out-of-state company [and] promising to lead the effort to change the law in order to provide a preference for Maryland residency to in-state medical marijuana license applicants.”
Glenn plead guilty last month and her plea deal revealed that she had the charges hanging over her head since the summer even as she publicly commented on licensing issues and criticized the process.
William Tilburg, the executive director of the MMCC—full name, the Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, named after Glenn’s mother—has said that Glenn’s corruption did not influence the reimagined regulations regarding licensing and that the now-scandalized politician did not provide feedback on any specific applicants.
It is likely that Glenn is cooperating with the F.B.I. (much was made of her hugging F.B.I. agents after she appeared in court to plead guilty). This scandal, which will only make licensing even more complicated, is far from over.
In Baltimore, a hyper-localized policy intended to reduce racially disproportionate arrests for cannabis ended up just complicating things. Baltimore’s State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby began the year by announcing that her State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) would no longer prosecute cannabis possession charges (In Maryland, cannabis is decriminalized though if you are in possession of 10 or more grams and do not have a medicinal card, you would be charged with misdemeanor possession).
Mosby’s decision was influenced by evidence of racially disproportionate arrests for possession happening in Baltimore: Nearly 96% of the people charged with possession in Baltimore between 2015 and 2017—so, post-decriminalization—were black. Mosby also stressed how arresting and charging people with weed was a poor use of police and prosecutorial resources in a city which has, since 2015, regularly surpassed the staggering 300 homicides per year marker.
“If you ask that mom whose son was killed where she would rather us spend our time and our attention—on solving that murder, or prosecuting marijuana laws—it’s a no-brainer,” Mosby told The New York Times.
Mosby’s January 29 announcement though, framed as part of the larger movement of “progressive” prosecutors across the country reframing the war on drugs, created confusion. Many Baltimoreans, less attuned to the complexities of cannabis law saw the announcement on the news and assumed that cannabis was pretty much legal now. Really, it meant that if Baltimore Police arrested you for possession, the SAO would possibly drop the charges—if they could not charge you for intent to distribute, that is. Defense attorneys and assistant state’s attorneys have told The Outlaw Report that the policy was tough for clients to unpack and made the likelihood of prosecution hard to predict.
The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) did not support Mosby’s announcement and BPD’s new commissioner Michael Harrison (Baltimore’s tenth commish since 2000) said he would discuss the decision with Mosby but would not encourage officers to stop making arrests for cannabis possession.
The policy was put to the test almost immediately when on February 5, Dwight Chinyee of Winston-Salem, North Carolina was pulled over on Interstate-95 inside Baltimore City lines for speeding. Police found 17 pounds of cannabis in Chinyee’s truck and he was charged with possession with intent to distribute and felony trafficking between five and 45 kilograms.
Chinyee was recommended “no bail” by the SAO and he spent a month in jail before his charges were finally dropped. The reason his charges were dropped, the SAO said, is that they could not disprove that the 17 pounds were not for personal use and therefore, Chinyee’s charge bumped down to possession. While the SAO figured all of this out, Chinyee was in jail and lost his job as a result. Chinyee’s lawyer Tony Garcia criticized what he saw as the SAO’s ad-hoc approach to cannabis prosecution.
“The miscommunication concerning this new policy is heightened when the message is contradictory to the action of the Office of the State’s Attorney,” Garcia said.
The Outlaw Report has reached out to the SAO requesting information about the number of cannabis possession charges dropped since this policy was announced one year ago. The SAO did not have the numbers on-hand. The Outlaw Report will publish those numbers when—or if—we receive them.
There was at least one way that cannabis became less confusing in Maryland in 2019. House Bill 17 which finally allowed dispensaries to “acquire, possess, transfer, sell, distribute or dispense edible cannabis products” passed. Since medicinal cannabis arrived in Maryland in 2017, there have been workarounds by savvy processors who for example, marketed gummies as “troches” or mints were as “tablets”—a rather ridiculous rebranding that is no longer necessary.
So while Marylanders finally have their aboveboard edibles, legalization and racial equity remain out of reach. That part is well, complicated.
Photo of Maryland State House by Martin Falbisoner courtesy Creative Commons.