None of the 15 growing licenses awarded by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission this summer went to companies led by African-Americans, even though the state is 30 percent black. Pictured: Marijuana plants are seen covered in fire retardant material on Aug. 15, 2016 in Lower Lake, California. (Elijah Nouvelage, Getty Images)

Could Maryland pause the medical marijuana program until racial issues are resolved?

'This is an urgent issue': None of the 15 growing licenses awarded by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission this summer went to companies led by African-Americans

The president of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus said Thursday that the group is committed to introducing emergency legislation to pause the state’s medical marijuana program until questions surrounding racial disparities in the awarding of growing licenses are resolved.

“This is an urgent issue,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, who is president of the group. “We are not going to let … the black community get shut out of this market.”

None of the 15 growing licenses awarded by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission this summer went to companies led by African-Americans, even though the state is 30 percent black and legislation creating the medical marijuana industry calls for regulators to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity in selecting cultivators.

Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, who was visibly angry during the hearing, said the issue is one of equity and fairness, and she called the process “a step backwards for us.”

Caucus members considered various suggestions, including requiring the commission to restart the program or to license 10 more growing companies. The commission has said it does not want any further delays to the program.

Glenn, however, said she favors a restart. Companies that have already received an initial clearance would have an unfair advantage, she said, if they are allowed to continue developing their businesses while 10 firms are added. Glenn argued that because the black community has been disproportionately affected by illegal marijuana, black entrepreneurs should participate in the medical cannabis industry now that it is legal.

The caucus members also heard suggestions for possible legislative remedies to discriminatory policing in Baltimore, which was the focus of a scathing report this summer by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Advocates urged lawmakers to push for bills during the next legislative session that would require more transparency in policing in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland, including making it easier for the public to learn what happens to complaints alleging police misconduct.

Toni Holness, the interim public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, told the panel about a court case involving a woman who was stopped by a state trooper. The officer later was recorded calling the woman a racial epithet, Holness said. The woman filed a complaint but was never able to find out whether action was taken against the state trooper.

Advocates also said they wanted to spotlight the Justice Department’s finding on the handling of sexual-assault cases. The report said that witnesses and victims in Baltimore are often not interviewed and that rape kits are not tested expeditiously.

The day-long hearing in Annapolis was the first of its kind for the legislative caucus, which also heard about issues in education, health, housing, historically black colleges and transportation.

“I think it’s critically important that we establish our legislation well before session begins so we can articulate to the leadership our priorities,” Glenn said.

This week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, D, sent Gov. Larry Hogan, R, a letter asking the state to provide more than $30 million to help reform the Baltimore Police Department.

Rawlings-Blake said the changes would be implemented under a consent decree into which the city expects to enter with the Justice Department. The process would include the appointment of a federal monitor.

The request includes $20 million over five years for an “early warning system” that would help identify problematic behavior in officers that could lead to intervention, additional training or termination, and $1.1 million over five years to hire coordinators to train and advise officers on interview techniques and proper procedures in conducting sexual-assault investigations.

Last year, the General Assembly passed criminal justice changes that will do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, make it easier for elderly prisoners to secure early release, and expand drug treatment as an alternative to prison.

But several lawmakers say there is more to be done. Benson, for one, said she wants to pursue legislation next year that would ban life without parole for juvenile offenders and to continue trying to address sentencing disparities.

“We took step one on criminal justice, and we know we need to take step two,” Glenn said.

The caucus meets next month to finalize its agenda and will seek support from legislative leaders and the governor before the legislature convenes in mid-January.