The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission will hire an independent firm to investigate concerns about a new application process for marijuana growers and processors that was meant to address a lack of gender and racial diversity in the industry.
That investigation is expected to take at least 45 days to complete, according to a letter Commission Chairman Brian Lopez sent the governor and legislative leaders last week.
The letter was made publicly available by the commission on Wednesday.
Concerns about the licensing process arose last month after members of the Legislative Black Caucus questioned whether efforts to diversify the industry had been successful, and after an applicant who had problems during a complicated application process received a temporary restraining order from a judge to halt new licenses.
The process to award four new growing and 10 new processor licenses has been ongoing for more than a year, after the General Assembly in 2018 passed House Bill 2, which added the 14 new licenses and sought to achieve racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity among licensees.
Lopez laid out the commission’s efforts to increase diversity in his letter. As required by the law, the commission held several trainings and business outreach events to encourage minority participation in the industry, including more than a dozen workshops co-hosted with the Legislative Black Caucus. Emergency regulations were passed to guide the new application process, allocating 15 percent of the application scoring system to diversity-related provisions.
The commission also struck an agreement with Morgan State University, a historically black school, to evaluate applications with all identifying information redacted to avoid bias.
But the redaction process alone created controversy. After an initial May 24 deadline for new applications, the vast majority of applicants had failed to fully redact their applications, causing the commission to reopen the process. A month later, 202 applications were sent on to Morgan State for evaluations.
The commission notified applicants of their rankings the last week of September, two days before a commission meeting in which pre-approvals were to be announced for the highest-ranking applicants, the start of a longer approval process.
But the Legislative Black Caucus encouraged the commission to hold off, asking commissioners to further verify information submitted by all applicants “to ensure that all companies are truthful in their disclosures about minority ownership, and their financial status.”
In his letter, Lopez said the commission is confident that the process developed with Morgan State “was comprehensive and fair.”
“However, the Commission takes seriously the concerns raised about the manner in which the process was executed, and whether the integrity of the process was undermined by any undue influences,” Lopez wrote.
The outside investigation will focus on the accuracy of the material submitted by highest-ranked applicants and the impartiality of the application process.
The commission’s executive director, William Tilburg, who shared the letter with colleagues on Wednesday, did not return a call seeking comment. Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the black caucus, also did not respond to a request for comment.
When the commission awarded initial licenses to launch the Maryland medical cannabis industry in 2016, only one processor pre-approval was awarded to an African American business. A disparity study finished in 2018 found that women and African Americans were significantly disadvantaged in the medical cannabis industry.