Md. House panel weighs bill to improve minorities’ medical marijuana licensing

WASHINGTON — A bill designed to add minority-owned businesses into the mix of medical marijuana licensees was the subject of Maryland’s House Health and Government Operations Committee on Monday.

The bill includes measures aimed at getting more minority-owned interests licensed to sell. Maryland first legalized medical marijuana in 2014, but the first dispensaries didn’t begin selling the product until last month.

A number of those testifying before the panel on Martin Luther King Jr. Day referenced the civil rights leader’s efforts to achieve economic justice for African-Americans.

“This is the opportunity, I believe, for all of us to create minority wealth,” said Bruce Branch, who’s on the board of the African-American Medical Cannabis Association. “On the day when we celebrate the words and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I once again admonish this body to do the right thing.”

In August, members of the African-American Caucus in Annapolis complained that when the state awarded the first 15 licenses, none went to black-owned businesses — despite a provision in state law calling on state regulators to consider diversity in issuing the licenses.

Vicki Orem, a Prince George’s County attorney who previously applied for a license to sell medical marijuana, complained that the provisions in the current bill don’t go far enough to encourage the state’s cannabis commission to include minorities.

“We’ll never get a license if this bill is passed the way it is,” Orem told the House committee Monday. “It’s very disappointing. I would support this bill, but it needs amendments.”

Jake Van Wingerden, owner of Sun Med Growers in Cecil County, was supportive of the bill. He noted that the fledgling cannabis industry still faces court challenges, because federal law does not recognize it as legal. The bill, he said, creates stability for the industry.

“This has been a very tumultuous last year and a half, being one of the growers with legal bills that are very, very high in defense of this industry,” he told the panel.

Another facet of the bill: a provision to make medical marijuana more affordable for patients. Del. Karen Lewis Young asked Van Wingerden what’s being done to make sure that all patients who qualify for medical marijuana have access to it.

“Given the cost of this product, no one but fairly financially comfortable people can afford it,” she told Van Wingerden. She was concerned that the provision creating a “compassion fund” to make medical marijuana more affordable for patients would be funded adequately.

Van Wingerden told Young that one-eighth of an ounce costs, on average, $60. He said if a patient bought that amount once a week, that would likely come to about $3,000 a year per patient. He told the panel that once the industry begins to grow more product, the prices should come down.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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