Md.’s ge­og­ra­phy of pot

Our view: Leg­is­la­tors should in­ves­ti­gate ap­par­ent in­con­sis­tency in med­i­cal mar­i­juana com­mis­sion’s cri­te­ria for who gets grower li­censes

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

When the Gen­eral As­sem­bly le­gal­ized med­i­cal mar­i­juana in Mary­land, it re­quired the com­mis­sion run­ning the pro­gram to “ac­tively seek to achieve racial, eth­nic, and ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity when li­cens­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana grow­ers.” But the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice ad­vised the com­mis­sion that, ab­sent a study doc­u­ment­ing racial dis­par­i­ties in the med­i­cal cannabis in­dus­try, cre­at­ing racial and eth­nic pref­er­ences was un­con­sti­tu­tional. As a re­sult, the reg­u­la­tions the com­mis­sion adopted make no men­tion of racial di­ver­sity.

But the AG’s of­fice ad­vised that seek­ing ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity was per­mis­si­ble, and the reg­u­la­tions state that “for scor­ing pur­poses, the com­mis­sion may take into ac­count the ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion of the grow­ing op­er­a­tion to en­sure there is ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity in the award of li­censes.”

Still, when the time came to fill out ap­pli­ca­tions, prospec­tive li­censees were ev­i­dently con­fused about the ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity re­quire­ment — and no won­der; the ap­pli­ca­tion didn’t ac­tu­ally ask where in the state an ap­pli­cant planned to grow the crops. A fre­quently asked ques­tions doc­u­ment on the com­mis­sion’s web­site in­cludes three en­tries on the sub­ject. One posted Oct. 13, 2015, said, “The pro­posed lo­ca­tion is not rel­e­vant for pur­poses of the stage 1 ap­pli­ca­tion,” and an­other from the same day said, “An ap­pli­cant does not need to demon­strate that they are pro­mot­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal di­ver­sity in their choice of premises.” The third, posted Oct. 27, re­peats the lan­guage in the reg­u­la­tions but ital­i­cizes the word “may” and does not spec­ify whether such con­sid­er­a­tion might oc­cur in the first or later stages of the ap­pli­ca­tion process.

Months went by as the Re­gional Eco­nomic Stud­ies In­sti­tute at Tow­son Univer­sity, with the help of out­side ex­perts in the field, eval­u­ated the ap­pli­ca­tions us­ing a dou­ble-blind process that ob­scured the iden­ti­ties of the ap­pli­cants. In June, the com­mis­sion asked ap­pli­cants for the lo­ca­tions of their prospec­tive op­er­a­tions, but that in­for­ma­tion didn’t fac­tor into the RESI scor­ing, which fo­cused in­stead on fac­tors like hor­ti­cul­tural expertise, se­cu­rity and em­ploy­ment prac­tices. In July, a sub­com­mit­tee of the com­mis­sion voted 5-0 to give pre­lim­i­nary ap­proval to the top 15 grow­ers based on RESI’s eval­u­a­tions.

Two days later, the chair­man of that sub­com­mit­tee per­suaded three other mem­bers to re­verse their vote and swap two lower-ranked firms into the top 15 for the sake of ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity. The full com­mit­tee for­mal­ized their de­ci­sion two weeks later, prompt­ing lit­i­ga­tion from the two com­pa­nies that were passed over.

The method by which the com­mis­sion deter­mined ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity is cu­ri­ous. Nei­ther the state law nor reg­u­la­tions de­fine what that means, and rather than seek­ing bal­ance by coun­ties or what most Mary­lan­ders would read­ily iden­tify as the state’s re­gions, it used a Mary­land Agri­cul­tural Re­gion Map pro­duced by UMBC. The map lumps to­gether Washington, Fred­er­ick, Mont­gomery, Howard, Car­roll, Bal­ti­more and Har­ford coun­ties and Bal­ti­more City in one re­gion known as the north cen­tral zone — a mas­sive area that in­cluded 10 of the 15 high­est-scor­ing ap­pli­cants un­der RESI’s eval­u­a­tion. (It also is home to 60 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion.)

It seems un­likely that the Gen­eral As­sem­bly’s in­ter­est in ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity re­volved around en­sur­ing mar­i­juana plants would be cul­ti­vated un­der dif­fer­ent grow­ing con­di­tions — par­tic­u­larly since, for se­cu­rity and other rea­sons, med­i­cal mar­i­juana is al­most ex­clu­sively grown in­doors. More­over, the two com­pa­nies dropped from the list of pre­lim­i­nary li­censees were not the low­est-ranked ap­pli­cants in their agri­cul­tural re­gion in the For se­cu­rity rea­sons, med­i­cal mar­i­juana grow­ing op­er­a­tions tend to be lo­cated in­doors, yet Mary­land used agri­cul­tural zone maps to de­ter­mine ge­o­graphic di­ver­sity among li­censees. orig­i­nal top 15.

But the agri­cul­tural zone rubric did af­ford the op­por­tu­nity to move one of the li­censes from the north cen­tral re­gion to Prince George’s — which, for these pur­poses, counts as South­ern Mary­land, a re­gion that had only one grower among the orig­i­nal top 15. (An­other of the pre­lim­i­nary li­censes was moved to the lower Eastern Shore, which pre­vi­ously had no grow­ers, though Dorch­ester County had two.)

Prince George’s is where the grower lo­ca­tion sub­com­mit­tee chair­man, Chev­erly Po­lice Chief Buddy Rob­shaw, is from. Be­cause of the dou­ble-blind na­ture of the process, Mr. Rob­shaw should not have known the iden­tity of the firm he was ad­vo­cat­ing to pro­mote, Holis­tic In­dus­tries LLC, but it hap­pens to be one with strong con­nec­tions to Prince George’s pol­i­tics. Its key play­ers in­clude Is­mael “Vince” Canales, the head of the state Fra­ter­nal Order of Po­lice and a for­mer Prince George’s po­lice of­fi­cer with Mr. Rob­shaw; and Richard Polan­sky, the son-in-law of top Annapolis lob­by­ist Gerard E. Evans, who rep­re­sents the firm and se­cured a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion for the com­pany from Se­nate Pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller. (The let­ter, ac­cord­ing to The Washington Post, was not part of the ap­pli­ca­tion that com­mis­sion­ers saw.) A dis­tant cousin of Sen­a­tor Miller is also among the firm’s part­ners.

Mem­bers of the Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus say they will seek to halt the li­cen­sure process to en­sure that mi­nor­ity-owned firms are in­cluded. (None of the top 15 is a mi­nor­ity-owned firm.) We share their con­cern that a new, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try re­flect Mary­land’s di­ver­sity and will be ea­ger to hear ideas for ame­lio­rat­ing the sit­u­a­tion within the con­fines of the law. But at least the com­mis­sion was con­sis­tent in the case of racial di­ver­sity. Ge­og­ra­phy was a dif­fer­ent story. The com­mis­sion told ap­pli­cants ge­og­ra­phy was not rel­e­vant and then made de­ci­sions based upon it. The leg­is­la­ture needs to in­ves­ti­gate that is­sue, too; Del. Ch­eryl Glenn, the Black Cau­cus chair­woman, al­ready raised ques­tions about it at a hear­ing Thurs­day, call­ing the com­mis­sion’s ex­pla­na­tion of its ac­tions “laugh­able.”

Our in­ter­est is not whether one com­pany or an­other gets a li­cense that could be worth tens of mil­lions of dol­lars a year. The courts will sort that out. Our con­cern is whether the process was con­ducted fairly, openly and trans­par­ently, and the facts as they are known at this point give cause for con­cern.

BREN­DAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

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