By GREG MORTON
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – More than 80 scheduled speakers and dozens of others converged on the House Economic Matters Committee Friday for one of the biggest days on the legislative calendar: a hearing on the omnibus bill to create a legal market for cannabis in Maryland. The speakers, some representing private industry, some speaking only on behalf of their own businesses, and some simply concerned Marylanders, came mostly to propose amendments.
The bill, a massive 88-page piece of legislation, creates a framework for the legal sale of cannabis in Maryland after voters approved legalization in November’s election. Lawmakers have made it a priority to create a regulatory structure to avoid an unregulated market when cannabis is officially legalized on July 1.
Dozens stood at attention (indeed, many had no choice as the room had run out of seats) as committee Chairman C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, prepared to kick off the hearing with testimony in favor of the bill that he co-sponsored and his committee was preparing to take up.
“As I’ve said multiple times I’m not here to create a cash cow for the state or just a marketplace for intoxicants. I’m here to make sure we can stop young people from being arrested and dying,” said Wilson.
Though most of the testimony on the bill skewed favorably about the bill’s overall goals – particularly in terms of fostering social equity in the cannabis industry – most were there to advocate for changes to the bill.
Threat to the hemp industry
Many of the speakers, including several who provided emotional testimony, came from the hemp industry, which sees the bill as an existential threat.
“As this bill is written, it will literally translate to at least 100 families losing the ability to produce income,” said Derek Spruill, owner of Cherry Blossom Hemp in Silver Spring.
Hemp businesses and hemp representatives worry that the bill would force many hemp-based products from shelves because of limits it would impose on THC products that could be sold without a recreational license.
“Just thinking about the tincture bottles (of CBD)…they’re absolutely going to have more than that cap in milligrams, but they’re going to be well below the federally legal 0.3% (of THC per serving),” said Elly Cowan of Compass Advocacy group, a firm that represents several members of the hemp industry. “What you have there is an issue because you’re translating something that was by volume before…into a weight,” she added.
Wilson has remained unconvinced by the industry’s arguments.
“Let’s be clear..the people growing hemp, this does not affect them,” said Wilson after Wednesday’s legislative session. “The concern is that the individuals that are testifying are selling a derivative of hemp that intoxicates people.”
Cowan and other hemp industry representatives have pushed back on this accusation and urged Wilson and other committee members to reconsider.
There are “bad actors” in any unregulated industry, Cowan said, but her clients self-regulate, pay for their own testing, abide by current law and try to assure children do not have access to their products.
The right to organize
Union representatives, including speakers from United Food and Commercial Workers, a labor union that represents cannabis workers in Maryland, proposed an amendment to ensure cannabis workers are covered by what is called a “peace agreement” by making adherence to such agreements a condition of obtaining a license.
Peace agreements, which were also conditions of casino licensing in Prince George’s County, are meant to create more favorable conditions for unionization and to prevent some of the tactics businesses have traditionally used to stymie labor organizing.
“If the workers decided to organize, the employer would have to remain completely neutral, they wouldn’t be able to sway or influence or retaliate against their employees,” said Kayla Mock, a representative of UFCW Local 400, which represents cannabis workers in Maryland. “It would create a truly free and fair process for workers to organize,” she added.
Wilson, who notes that labor unions are not precluded from organizing under existing federal law, seemed apprehensive about including a peace order mandate in the final bill.
“The government doesn’t have to get involved in every aspect of somebody’s life,” said Wilson. “Federally, you can’t stop somebody (from unionizing).”
Union representatives, while acknowledging the validity of current law, asserted that it is inadequate to curb some of what advocates deem “anti-union” actions, including “captive audience meetings” – employee meetings called to threaten those who favor unionization – that have been employed by companies like Starbucks and Amazon.
“Our dream for legalized cannabis is an industry where the license holders benefit, but they’re not the only ones – that also the workers who will work in this industry are people who were from neighborhoods that were destroyed by the war on drugs. And when they get these jobs, workers that they choose are able to unionize but the jobs themselves are good quality, middle-class-creating jobs,” said UFCW Vice President and Director of Legislative and Political Action Ademola Oyefeso to Capital News Service.
First access to the market
As the bill is written, current medical dispensary owners stand to be some of the first beneficiaries of the new, potentially billion-dollar, legal cannabis market in Maryland.
To ensure adequate supply when the legal market opens on July 1, those who now hold licenses to sell medical cannabis will have the option to convert their licenses and be among the first to access the legal market.
However, to curb a potential first mover advantage, the bill also imposes strict limits on the number of dispensaries a medical license owner can operate, a concern for some of the more ambitious and enterprising medical operators.
“I’m really looking at opportunities to scale my business, and to be able to partner with other like-minded entrepreneurs to help them avoid some of the mistakes that I made,” said Hope Wiseman, owner of the Prince George’s County dispensary Mary & Main, who testified in favor of amendments that would allow current medical operators to open more locations and to foster increased cooperation with the new market entrants who will receive licenses through the bill.