ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After Carey Tilghman’s 6-year-old daughter, Paisley, suffered from a stroke, doctors drafted a plan to use a round of Botox injections and muscle relaxers to treat her condition.
Searching for an alternative for her daughter, Tilghman found that a transdermal patch filled with cannabis, which has been linked to shielding the brain from stroke damage, could possibly be helpful to her daughter, but she hasn’t been able access the drug in Maryland’s stalled medical cannabis industry.
Maryland has had one of the slowest rollouts of medical marijuana in the country.
The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which grants the licenses to growers, processors and dispensers, has been hampered by legal battles and pending legislation in the Maryland General Assembly since the state legalized medical cannabis in 2014.
This legislative session, state lawmakers are considering a spate of bills outlining different solutions intended to address a lack of diversity in licenses, and two lawsuits that have delayed the rollout of Maryland’s nascent medical cannabis industry.
The commission expects medical cannabis to be available to patients this summer, according to Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the group. Patient registry for the drug begins this month, but concerned residents are worried that bills may push back the rollout date even further.
“We can’t delay access,” Tilghman said. “(Paisley) deserves to have a transdermal patch and play like a kindergartener can play. They want her on muscle relaxers; they want her to have surgery. How do you be a kindergartner on muscle relaxers?”
“You can’t,” she added, choking up.
The commission was tasked with ensuring racial and geographical diversity in their selection process, and on Dec. 9 it announced pre-approvals for 102 businesses to sell medical cannabis, which broke down into 15 growers, 15 processors, and 72 dispensaries.
However, preference for minority business owners may violate the Constitution, said Cheryl A. Brown Whitfield, principal counsel of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
The state would need to conduct a study to evaluate whether discrimination does exist in the medical cannabis industry before it could take race-conscious measures in awarding licenses, said Zenita Hurley, the attorney general’s director of legislative affairs and civil rights. This study could take up to two years.
The commission used Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute to rank the company applicants. RESI used a double-blind system that did not take into account the race of owners, which resulted in the commission failing to award licenses that ensure adequate minority representation, said Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore.
While the commission has listed the rankings of each company, it has not released the scores and the criteria for which they were ranked, said Darrell Carrington, policy director for the medical cannabis division of Greenwill Consulting, a government relations firm.
“We’re all flying blind right now because the commission refuses to release the scores,” Carrington said. “The rankings are meaningless if we don’t have the scores. How do we know how to move forward properly and know if we’re really making corrections to increase diversity and the like, if we don’t know the difference between (the companies) was 5, 10, or 30 (points).”
Maryland includes a black or African-American population of 30.5 percent, a white population of 59.6 percent, and 9.9 percent who identify as another minority, according to data collected by the U.S. Census as of 2015.
The majority of the companies selected for pre-approvals for growing and processing are led by white owners.
Of the 11 companies with pre-approved growing licenses that reported demographic data to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, about 85 percent of the owners are white, about 8 percent are black, and about 7 percent identify as another racial minority. The nine pre-approved processing companies that reported data showed similar numbers, with 73 percent white ownership, about 15 percent black ownership, and about 12 percent other minority ownership.
The companies selected have about 76 percent male ownership and 24 percent female ownership.
Moreover, after complaints surfaced that the commission didn’t fairly include representation in areas of southeastern Maryland, the commission revised their original unanimous decision on the 15 companies slated to receive growing licenses by bumping two higher-scoring applicants and replacing them with two lower-scoring applicants in the underrepresented areas.
GTI, one of the companies originally awarded a coveted pre-approval license, had already picked out a site in Washington County and began developing a plan to produce medical cannabis when they were replaced, said Delegate Brett Wilson, R-Washington. The company has since joined the other business bumped from the list, Maryland Cultivation and Processing LLC, in suing the commission.
The commission has been operating without oversight or transparency, Glenn said. “They can’t answer why they made the decisions they made.”
To address the lack of ownership diversity, the Legislative Black Caucus, which Glenn heads, has proposed two emergency bills that would overhaul the 15-member commission and reinstate it with members who reflect the racial and geographical diversity of the state.
Sarah Hoyt, director of government affairs for the commission, wrote in testimony that this emergency legislation would “substantially delay the availability of medical cannabis to qualifying patients” by as much as two years.
But Glenn said her legislation would not slow the arrival of the medical cannabis industry.
“The commission operated in an arbitrary, opaque and misleading fashion,” said Pete Kadens, CEO and director of GTI, adding that overhauling the “inefficient” commission would actually speed the rollout of the long-awaited industry.
Kadens said he supported the 15 companies who have been pre-approved to start operating immediately.
“Even though we were displaced for the purpose of geographic diversity, even though we scored higher on merit than five of the companies that now have pre-approvals for the state, even though we feel we were wronged, we do not want the patients of the state to be further distressed,” Kadens said.
One of Glenn’s bills would issue five to seven more licenses for both growers and processors. The bill would also give heavier consideration to businesses with majority black ownership.
The second bill would disband the current commission to create a nine-member Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Licensing Unit. This new group would award new grower licenses in future years and would have a fund to provide minority- and women-owned medical cannabis businesses with loans.
Wilson has proposed a separate bill that would increase the number of growers from 15 to 17 to reinstate the two geographically bumped companies’ on the list. This could fix what he called a “fairness issue,” adding that it will likely immediately stop any pending litigation, he said.
Wilson said he doesn’t oppose the other bills and that it’s possible a number of the five bills may merge into “one bill that accomplishes everything.”
“We’re not in conflict with other bills,” Wilson said. “We don’t stand against the other proposals in any way.”
Delegate David Vogt, R-Carroll and Frederick, has also proposed a bill that attempts to squash the pending lawsuits, while also increasing minority and women ownership. His solution would accept the commission’s next 10 ranked applicants, which have been selected as alternates should any of the 15 growing businesses that have been pre-approved fall through.
This bill wouldn’t impact how the commission measures any of the businesses that have been tentatively approved, but it would impact any new ones that haven’t been measured by requiring the commission to give extra weight to minority- and women-owned businesses.
Vogt’s bill also proposes to distribute grant money to the businesses’ local communities. The money would be used for infrastructure improvements, increased security and community development. He added that the amount, $250,000 for each area, is a “nominal amount” and that “ultimately, (the state is) going to get that impact money back — 10, 20 times over — with the tax revenue.”
Vogt, like Wilson, noted that he thinks it’s likely to create one bill that combined components from each to address the problems in the long-awaited industry.
However, Glenn said she only supports the bills she is sponsoring.
Brian Bickerton, chairman of Mazey Farms, an alternate growing company ranked twentieth by the commission, said while he supports Vogt’s bill, he’s in favor of any legislation that moves the industry forward. His company has been waiting to officially launch its business for over two years.
“(It’s) been a long and arduous process,” Bickerton said. “There’s been a lot of tears on our end, but we believe in what we do, we believe in this industry, and we believe in the much-needed medicine that needs to get to the patients.”
Mazey Farms is majority minority-owned, Bickerton said, adding that he thinks the best way to address the lawsuits and the diversity issues is to allow the commission’s next 10 alternative businesses to obtain licenses.
Carrington said it’s hard at this point to know which bill will be “the vehicle that will move (the industry) forward.”
However, taking the next 10 growing alternates, as Vogt’s bill proposes, would significantly address the diversity problem without a delay, Carrington said.
“I can’t stand another delay,” Tilghman said, her daughter, Paisley, leaning on her. “If another delay is put in place (Maryland will) lose a lifelong resident.”