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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Has Promise of African American Equity in Baltimore’s Legal Cannabis Trade Gone Up in Smoke?

Almost exactly six years to the day, July 6, 2017, the first medical Cannabis dispensary opened in Maryland. The state will go legal with recreational pot on July 1, 2023. Maryland’s inaugural weed dispensary opened nearly three years after former governor, Martin O’Malley, signed House Bill 881, establishing the Natalie M. La Prade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee the administration of medicinal marijuana.

Ironically, despite the impetus for the state of Maryland’s decision to authorize legal medical cannabis resulting from the desire of an elderly Black Baltimore woman’s family to treat her with the drug for the intense pain she suffered from kidney cancer, there are no Black-owned dispensaries among the dozen or so located in Baltimore City.

Moreover, it is insult to injury that the elderly Black woman in question, now deceased, Natalie M. La Prade, is not only the namesake of the original bill authorizing medical cannabis in Maryland, but the mother of the former Baltimore City state delegate representing the 43rd District, Cheryl Glenn, who introduced the legislation.

Cheryl D. Glenn, former Md State Delegate, 45th district, Baltimore City 
State of Maryland photo

Unfortunately, the widespread accolades Ms. Glenn received for her bold stance became overshadowed when it became public that she had accepted a $3,000 bribe in exchange for promising to guarantee passage of the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission Reform Act, which expanded the number of cannabis licenses in Maryland from 15 to 22, ostensibly as a racial equity measure because 100% of the original licenses were parceled only to white-owned businesses.  

Delegate Glenn, 69-years-old at the time of the incident, was charged, pled guilty to bribery, and cooperated with the government, drawing a 2-year federal prison sentence, although prosecutors called her “arrogant,” and asked the judge to confine her for three years.  

Coincidentally, Cheryl Glenn broke the law while spearheading a campaign to legalize marijuana, when one year earlier Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, announced a new policy of her office to stop prosecuting cannabis possession of any amount as a criminal offense, citing historical inequity against Baltimore’s Black citizens arrested and convicted for low level charges involving pot nearly 100% of the time, compared to Caucasians.

Black arrested nearly 2 to 1 for grass vs whites
Whites earning 100 to 1 vs Blacks for grass sales  State of Maryland graphic 

Although there was loud push back from the Baltimore City police union, the data supported Ms. Mosby’s decision, which not only considered the unfairness of the existing protocols, but recognized the gross amount of resources required to maintain the policy when FBI homicide data showed Baltimore City’s murder clearance rate in the first year of Ms. Mosby’s service, 2015, was only 29.7%, less than 1 in 10 of 342 homicides that year.

To put the unequitable treatment of African Americans on both the legal and illegal sides of the marijuana question into sharper perspective, consider that cannabis citations served by Baltimore police went from 44 in 2015 to 200 in 2016 to 544 in 2017, under Marilyn Mosby. 

According to FBI data, all but 18 of 2017’s 544 suspects arrested for marijuana were African American — 96.7%, even though usage between African Americans and Caucasians has been determined to be essentially identical.

A closer look reveals that not only are there no Black-owned cannabis dispensaries in Baltimore City or Baltimore County, there are actually no wholly owned marijuana businesses in Maryland, despite seven “Black-owned” regional dispensaries touted on the internet.  

Of the seven establishments identified, three are in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, one is on the Eastern Shore, in Cambridge, and three are in Washington, D.C., proper.  However, none are independently owned by Black entrepreneurs. They are all franchises managed by African Americans and owned by the Leafly Corporation, based in Seattle, Washington.  

Deeper examination may reveal that many other Cannabis dispensaries represented as Black-owned may also be franchise arrangements as well. For instance, Leafly operates a combination of medicinal and recreational Cannabis locations in 32 states and is not among the six largest distributors. Those are Innovative Industrial, Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries, Verano Holdings, Trulieve Cannabis and Cresco Labs.

Interestingly, Cresco Labs is the outlier among Black-owned cannabis business owners, as they were recently acquired by very deep-pocketed Sean “P Diddy” Combs. Cresco Labs owns 64 dispensaries nationally and earns nearly $500 million annually. The six largest marijuana distributors operate over 630 dispensaries in nearly all 50 states and generate roughly $7.7 billion in annual revenue.

A February 2023 report by Forbes presented research by the Brightfield Group, that estimated sales by year end of 2023 will surpass $31.8 billion, and grow to $50.7 billion in annual sales by 2028. According to MJBiZDaily.com, a cannabis industry newsletter, legal marijuana sales will exceed $53.5 billion by 2027. Within five years Caucasian cannabis distributors are headed towards $1 billion per week in sales, while many African American cannabis users may still be headed to jail.

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