A top Maryland marijuana regulator says the state’s proactive approach to legalizing cannabis has allowed it to implement a system that effectively balances three key priorities: safety, access and equity.
When the state’s legalization law took effect at the beginning of the month, nearly 100 existing medical marijuana dispensaries were already approved to start serving adult consumers. And a testament to the success of the rollout is the fact that Maryland retailers sold over $10 million worth of legal cannabis in the opening weekend.
Maryland Cannabis Administration’s (MCA) Andrew Garrison says that the state uniquely prepared for the reform, with the legislature forming a work group well ahead of voters approving a legalization referendum last November and officials taking steps like visiting Colorado to tour dispensaries as they contemplated their own regulatory framework.
There was “a lot of thoughtful consideration that went into the broader adult-use policy when it finally got dropped,” Garrison, who serves as chief of MCA’s Office of Policy & Government Affairs, said during an interview on the Rootwurks and VS Strategies podcast Weed Wonks, adding that the early work by lawmakers enabled officials to roll out a program within 82 days of the legislature enacting a cannabis regulations bill.
Garrison also stressed the importance of ensuring that equity is a “really key component of everything going forward.” To that end, the legalization law created a new independent Office of Social Equity within MCA to focus on it. Gov. Wes Moore (D) made a first series of appointments to that office on Monday.
Part of the strategy to build equity into the market is to collect licensing conversion fees from existing dispensaries that want to serve adult consumers and putting those dollars into a community reinvestment fund that will be used to support new business applicants in areas of the state that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition. Garrison estimates that the state will generate about $60 million in conversion fees to fulfill that goal.
The first round of new marijuana business licenses in Maryland have been reserved exclusively for social equity applicants, which is “something that I think builds off of and learns from what has worked in other states when contemplating social equity,” he said.
“Maryland’s a really diverse state. And there’s a lot of there’s a lot of communities in particular that have had this disproportionate cannabis enforcement really up into this point,” he said. “And we want to make sure that the folks who are getting access on the market side early before the social equity businesses come online are—that the legislature wanted to make sure that they paid their dues, and that that it goes to the communities that that we’re the most disadvantaged.”
Notably, the state has also mandated that retailers further promote equity by requiring that at least 25 percent of their shelves are stocked with cannabis products from companies that are owned by equity licensees.
“The dispensaries will have to be stocking their products to make sure that we don’t have just vertically integrated firms just selling their products—continuing to make sure that there’s a path to market for these non-vertically integrated firms,” he said. “And then that also continues back up the supply chain as well.”
Also, the state Department of Commerce (DOC) announced last week that it will be opening applications for $40 million in grant funding to social equity applicants with pre-approval starting on August 1.
Regulators have already been accepting applications to provide grants through the same fund to help existing medical marijuana businesses convert into dual licensees that can serve the adult-use market.
Another key consideration that went into Maryland’s legalization law is patient access, making sure that those who’ve been involved in the state’s existing medical cannabis program don’t see their access to medicine disrupted after adult-use sales launch.
Retailers have two options to that end: they can reserve specific hours of operation every day exclusively for patients, or they can create “fast lanes” at their stores where there are registers that only patients can use.
“This is an interesting piece that Maryland is also doing is, you know, while patient access really is in the forefront, the supply chain is saying the same,” he said. “We’re not having medical plants and adult-use plants. It’s really going down to the point of sale.”
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As regulators monitor the first month of recreational marijuana sales, Garrison says officials are also actively working on a “cleanup bill” to adjust regulations that he expects will be taken up by the legislature during the next session.
MCA will be holding what they describe internally as “limited town halls” with stakeholder groups, including dispensaries, growers and patient advocates in late summer and early fall to develop permanent regulations. That process will also involve public comment periods once the draft rules are ready to be published.
Meanwhile, a separate Maryland law also took effect this month that prevents police from using the odor or possession of marijuana alone as the basis of a search. Yet another law that went into force makes it so the lawful and responsible use of cannabis by parents and guardians cannot be construed by state officials as child “neglect.”