In Annapolis, a Debate About Medicinal Cannabis Licenses and the Free Market

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According to Chairman of the African-American Cannabis Association Joe Gaskins, the white and moneyed performed a “heist” over the past few years, swiping all of Maryland’s medicinal cannabis licenses for themselves and leaving equally qualified black growers and processors with nothing.

“In the beginning, it seemed to be a great idea,” Gaskins said last week at a House Health and Government Operations Committee hearing for House Bill 1449. “Legalize cannabis for medical purposes, collect taxes for the state’s coffers, while drying up the illegal market. Everyone wins, why not?” 

HB 1449 would repeal the limit on the number of licenses the Maryland Medicinal Cannabis Commission can issue.

Gaskins was one of many black business people connected to the medicinal cannabis industry who was in favor of the bill. Like many of them, he wore a banana yellow T-shirt with cannabis leaves and the words, “Equality in cannabis,” on the front with, “Equal op to grow this crop,” on the back. Gaskins continued, racing through the recent history of how Maryland finally obtained medicinal cannabis and who it seemingly left behind.

“This was a non-starter for Maryland’s businesses, especially for the minority-and women-owned businesses located within the state who were not included in the smoke-filled rooms of decision making,” Gaskins said. “A few well-connected, out of state, wealthy white men orchestrated a heist from the beginning. Who could challenge them? They had the money, and if need be, they certainly could influence politics with it.”

As The Outlaw Report has reported, the medicinal cannabis industry program in Maryland has been roundly criticized for the lack of diversity among those who were initially awarded licenses. Of the initial group, none were black-owned, which led to criticisms by the the Legislative Black Caucus. This led to 2019 House Bill expanding the number of growers and processors along with a disparity study that showed the industry was not considering racial equity.

“This was the making of a Jesse and Frank James saga,” Gaskins said. “Outlaws who by the way farmed commercial hemp in Kentucky during the mid-1800s.” 

Hanging over the hearing was another cannabis-related crime. Delegate Cheryl Glenn was, as revealed in a federal indictment unsealed in December of last year, taking bribes tied to legislation expanding the number of much-coveted medicinal cannabis licenses in Maryland.

Between the launch of the medicinal cannabis in Maryland and steps introduced to attempt to address racial disparity, Glenn, formerly the chair of the Black Legislative Caucus, had been one of the main proponents pushing for changes to make MMCC’s process more racially equitable. That she was taking bribes has further complicated the issue. Many have argued that the cap on the number licenses, which made them more coveted by businesses, made it easier for Glenn to curry favor and float the promise of additional legislation to business owners in exchange for cash. The day after Glenn’s guilty plea, William Tilburg, the executive director of the MMCC, claimed that Glenn’s corruption did not influence any decision-making when it came to licenses or regulations.

Delegate Darryl Barnes, who is the current chair of the Legislative Black Caucus explained HB 1449 to the House Health and Government Operations Committee in strictly economic terms: It would make the medicinal cannabis industry a free market which would lift some of the limitations on black growers and processors and would provide those who previously applied a bit of a leg up.

“Removing the cap opens it up to the free market, and it gives those that applied in the past preference points to ensure that they are looked at first,” Barnes said. “There’s no language in the bill that said [black-owned businesses] will get a license. No, but what’s in the bill is saying that removing the cap would then give everyone an opportunity.”

Barnes argued that more licenses will make them less coveted so the situation exploited by Glenn would be less likely to happen again and correctives such as the two disparity-related investigations currently happening (both announced at last month’s MMCC meeting) would be unnecessary if the industry was less regulated. 

“Opening up this license pool cuts down on the corruption, makes it more transparent, and it gives people an opportunity,” Barnes said.

Barnes later added that plenty of other states have figured this all out: “If other states can do what I’m proposing now, then there’s no reason why the state of Maryland can’t follow suit,” he said. 

It is a point that is pretty much always introduced when legislation in Maryland and the subsequent, knotty debates surrounding it make medicinal cannabis seem more and more complicated. 

When it was time to hear opposition to the bill, Joe Bryce, a lobbyist for the Maryland Wholesale Cannabis Medical Trade Association, plopped right down next to Del. Barnes and patted him on the back. His argument was simple and direct: The people who entered the industry did not anticipate a free market.

“When you go back to when the program was first created, there were in statute, 15 licenses,” Bryce said. “And those who bid on licenses at that time entered the market with the understanding that there would be a field of 15 and made investments and recruited investors accordingly.”

In other words, making the medicinal cannabis market, which studies show was unfair to black growers and processors when it was introduced, would be unfair to those growers and processors. 

Photo of Joe Gaskins by Brandon Soderberg

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