WASHINGTON – Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, hopes to reform medical debt practices by introducing legislation that would curb unfair policies and protect consumers.
Van Hollen and co-sponsor Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, announced the bill on Nov. 30.
The Maryland lawmaker and Murphy first sponsored the legislation in 2020. The bill called the Strengthening Consumer Protections and Medical Debt Transparency Act failed to pass before the end of 2020.
“When folks are sick or in the hospital, the last thing they should be worried about is whether they’ll lose their house or their wages for seeking care,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “This legislation puts safeguards in place to ensure transparency, cap interest rates, and keep the focus on patient’s health and wellbeing so they can get the care they need.”
If passed, the measure would require healthcare institutions to communicate about debt with consumers and cap the annual interest rate growth for the medical debt at 5%.
The legislation also calls on the Department of Health and Human Services to create a database for public information about medical debt collection practices from hospitals and other providers.
Additionally, the bill includes consumer protections like checking for insurance coverage assistance before a provider sends the debt to collection agencies and that healthcare entities must provide patients with itemized bills and payment receipts.
“Forcing people to go bankrupt just because they get sick is immoral — plain and simple,” Murphy said in a statement. “We need to shed light on the hospitals out there who are abusing patients with overly aggressive debt collection practices.”
In 2021, 12% of Maryland residents had medical debts in collection, according to a study by the Urban Institute.
A 2020 Gonzales poll by Economic Action Maryland showed that 34% of Marylanders would not be able to pay an unexpected $500 medical bill.
Medical debt also disproportionately affects Black people. In Maryland, 24% of Black residents said they delayed seeking medical care because of costs compared to 12% of white people.
“Unlike many other debts, no one chooses to get sick,” said Marceline White, director of Economic Action Maryland, an organization that has helped pass legislation targeting unfair medical debt practices.
“You can’t cost-comparison shop when you’re in an ambulance on the way to a hospital,” she said. “So many families simply don’t have the resources to absorb that kind of unexpected financial blow, which can be catastrophic.”
White said the new bill by Van Hollen and Murphy is a positive step for the country and targets the “most egregious” medical debt practices.
She stressed the importance of reform with the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and said there has been broad support in Maryland for this type of legislation.
“I think we are going to see continued strains on our health care system and on many families who are having chronic illnesses sort of post-pandemic post-COVID,” White said. “I think this should be something that most Americans and most members of Congress can agree upon. At least, I would certainly hope so.”
RIP Medical Debt is a charity established to reduce the burden of medical debt on low-income families using donations, paying off over $7 billion of debt since 2014 for over 4 million people. CEO and president of RIP Medical Debt, Allison Sesso, is enthusiastic about federal attention to the topic.
“We must do more to protect patients from medical debt and ensure people get the health care they need without fear of incurring debt,” Sesso said in a statement to Capital News Service. “(The bill) takes positive steps toward addressing the data challenges we face in understanding the prevalence of medical debt so we can better target policy solutions and more closely monitor the use of extraordinary collection actions.”
By GRACE YARROW
Capital News Service
Maryland’s cannabis regulations proposed ahead of legalization deadline
Maryland lawmakers introduced legislation Friday to create the framework for a legal cannabis market ahead of the July 1 start of legalization.
Identical, cross-filed bills introduced in the House and Senate create a regulatory structure for Maryland’s new cannabis industry that includes rules for licensing, taxation, and equity, among other things.
“I feel very good about the bill. I think it is possible to be a national model,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, in a press conference Friday morning.
In the process leading up to the bill’s introduction, which included several Cannabis Referendum & Legalization Working Group meetings involving legislators from relevant committees, lawmakers stressed the importance of avoiding the kinds of mistakes that have created chaos in other states where cannabis is legal.
That concern is reflected in their first commitment: strict adherence to the July 1 deadline to have a functioning legal market in place.
“We’ve seen what happened in places like New York where there are over 1,400 unlicensed dispensaries,” said Ferguson. The legal cannabis market has been in turmoil in other states around the country following an oversupply crisis and subsequent downturn that saw the spot price of cannabis sink to record lows in December 2022, according to Cannabis Benchmarks.
In Maryland, as in other states, supply will largely be dictated by the number of licenses approved by the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Cannabis Commission, newly renamed to add “cannabis” to the title. In the bill, licenses are divided into several categories:
- Standard licenses permit growing or processing large amounts of cannabis or operating a storefront dispensary. The bill allocates a total of 300 such licenses for dispensaries, 75 for growers, and 100 for processors.
- Micro licenses are meant to ensure smaller boutique operators’ space in the market to grow or process smaller amounts or operate a delivery service without a storefront. For these smaller operators, the bill allocates a total of 200 licenses for dispensaries, 100 for growers, and 100 for processors.
- Incubator space licenses will allow licensees to house “micro license” operators. The bill allows for ten such operator licenses.
- On-site consumption licenses would allow holders to own and operate facilities where people could legally smoke, vape, or consume cannabis. The bill allocates 50 on-site consumption licenses in total.
According to the bill, the licensing process will take place in several rounds. With an eye toward creating an equitable market, the first round of applications for all license types will be limited to designated “social equity applicants.”
While some lawmakers had hoped to be able to set aside these equity licenses for members of marginalized communities, particularly the Black community, which the United States protracted war has disproportionately impacted on drugs, a court ruling forbidding set-asides on racial grounds makes this difficult.
Instead, lawmakers plan to designate equity licenses by location. As defined in the bill, equity applicants have gone to school in a disproportionately impacted jurisdiction or lived there for at least five of the last ten years.
Additionally, lawmakers signaled a commitment to ensuring those convicted of cannabis-related offenses will have the opportunity to participate in the legal market.
“The pathway is that if you’ve been convicted, this won’t stop you (from obtaining a license),” said Delegate C.T. Wilson, D-Charles County, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee and one of the sponsors of the House version of the bill. “We’re going to ensure that those cannabis-related convictions aren’t held against you.”
Lawmakers are also taking steps to ensure access to the market through careful regulation of licensing application fees.
Applications for a five-year standard, incurabor, or on-site consumption license will cost $5,000, while the application fee for a micro license will be $1,000.
While lawmakers, including Wilson, had initially hoped to make the application fee refundable, lawmakers said they hope these fees, which would be among the lowest in the U.S., will not discourage potential applicants nor impede entry for what’s projected to be a billion-dollar industry in Maryland.
To ensure a functioning market by the July 1 deadline, lawmakers are also offering growers and distributors with current medical cannabis licenses to convert them to full-service licenses for a fee.
Another key component of legalization will be taxation policy, which plays a particularly important role in dictating how much cannabis and cannabis-related products will cost. The cost factor is one of the largest factors in dictating consumers’ willingness to abandon the illegal cannabis market in favor of the legal one, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
“The bill focuses on a pretty simple taxing structure,” said Wilson after Friday’s legislative session. There he told reporters that the tax on cannabis will begin at 6% and rise to 10% after five years.
To help keep prices low, the bill also prohibits the kinds of “piggyback taxes” that would allow counties to impose their own cannabis taxes.
While lawmakers prioritize keeping prices low when designing the taxation scheme for cannabis (Wilson told Capital News Service that they expect the state to lose money initially), lawmakers still want to ensure a portion of tax revenue the new industry generates is allocated to social equity.
Ferguson said the bill will use 30% of revenues to “invest in communities that the war has negatively impacted on drugs.” The goal is to empower communities and investments, he said.
Ferguson said that ideally, the money will go toward helping businesses open and “helping to invest in community development projects, affordable housing initiatives.”
Wilson and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard, told reporters they expect a hearing on the bill in Wilson’s committee within the next two weeks, where lawmakers can iron out disagreements over the details.
Additionally, lawmakers must tackle the issues of decriminalization and expungement, aspects of the process of particular importance to new Gov. Wes Moore, who expressed confidence in the process in a statement on Friday.
“Governor Moore recognizes this bill as a well-crafted piece of legislation and is looking forward to future collaboration with the legislature to ensure Maryland is moving towards equity in our criminal justice system by supporting policies that promote redemption and reform.” The statement also said, “The governor is committed to legalizing cannabis, expunging the records of anyone convicted of simple possession, and investing in this emerging industry while prioritizing equitable access to all Marylanders.”
By GREG MORTON and DOROTHY HOOD
Capital News Service
USDA to use outdoors recreation to boost economy around national forests, grasslands
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture began planning to develop outdoor recreation opportunities near national forests and grasslands this month, part of a broader Biden administration push to help communities reap economic rewards from the growing recreation sector.
Three USDA agencies — the U.S. Forest Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and Office of Rural Development — signed a memorandum of understanding last fall pledging to collaborate on plans to develop outdoor recreation economies in “gateway communities” near national forests and grasslands, according to a Jan. 19 press release.
A Rural Development spokesperson said the agency selected its final team to begin developing the first annual plan in mid-January. The spokesperson declined to be identified by name.
“We know that when we invest in rural and tribal communities and people, we create an economic ripple effect that benefits everyone,” the spokesperson said in a written statement to States Newsroom.
Many of the rural communities near national forests and grasslands have experienced significant economic downturns in recent years. The multi-agency effort is meant to help those communities harness the economic power of outdoor recreation.
“We want to be intentional about making sure that they are getting economic, social, and physical benefits,” said Toby Bloom, the national program manager for travel, tourism, and interpretation with the Forest Service.
Some communities may have been reliant on a large employer that closed, forcing people to find work elsewhere and leading to a shrinking workforce that discourages further investment, Bloom said.
“If we can address that vicious cycle by creating opportunities, creating jobs, there’s a huge amount of jobs that are generated by recreation every year,” she added.
Bloom highlighted a mountain biking trail network near Ironton, Ohio, as an example of a community reorienting its economy around outdoor recreation tourism.
The USDA program is an acknowledgment from the government about the clear economic benefits of the outdoor recreation sector for rural areas, said Chris Perkins, senior director for the industry and nonprofit coalition group Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.
“What this partnership will do is just make the process of economic development around outdoor recreation a possibility for more communities,” Perkins said. “That will help demystify the process. And it will help them access funding and take on challenges before they arise.”
The great outdoors: a booming economic sector
Funding for the initiative will come from existing USDA grants, loans and service programs, though specific figures have not been set, the Rural Development spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that the agencies will prioritize projects that advance Biden administration goals to address climate change, environmental justice, racial equity, and improved market opportunities.
Bloom explained that this is the first time the partnership will push recreation opportunities as projects for funding.
“Previously, we never thought about using a recreation lens,” Bloom said. “And we’re seeing now what an important piece of the economy it is.”
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that outdoor recreation produced $454 billion in economic activity, accounting for 1.9% of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2021. The agency also found that employment in outdoor recreation grew by 13.1% from 2020 to 2021. According to the USDA, the sector supports close to 6.1 million jobs directly nationwide.
Interest in outdoor activity is only accelerating, Perkins said. The sector grew at three times the rate of the larger U.S. economy last year as people turned to the outdoors as a tool for physical and mental health, he added.
Bloom said that rural communities close to public lands also tend to have a lower tax base, as no one is building on the land.
“This is really an attempt to help those communities near public lands and water capitalize on the existing financial opportunities,” the program manager said. “Yes, you may have a smaller tax base, but you have these recreation amenities that have the potential to generate as much, if not even more, income.”
COVID-19 highlighted the importance of outdoor recreation, Bloom said. The pandemic’s early months saw an explosion in outdoor recreation. And while some rural communities handled the influx of tourists effectively, others were left scrambling to accommodate the jump in visitor numbers, she said.
“It’s kind of like America rediscovered its outdoors,” Bloom said. “And so as federal agencies, we need to help both the visitors have their best peak experience and also help those communities that are receiving visitors be able to manage that visitation and also benefit from it.”
The roots of the USDA initiative
President Barack Obama launched the Federal Interagency Council on Outdoor Recreation in 2011. The council, comprised of representatives from USDA and the departments of Interior, Commerce, and Defense, conducted the country’s first wide-scale economic analysis of the recreation economy.
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, disbanded the council when he took office in 2017.
Bloom said the Biden administration reestablished the council last summer, laying the groundwork for the renewed partnership.
Bloom said the council helped raise the recreation sector’s profile with politicians, setting the stage for the USDA agencies to bring their expertise to the project.
‘Open the faucet’
The agencies will help communities plan to create or enhance outdoor recreation opportunities. They will also provide funding for development programs and help communities apply for federal grants.
As the agencies develop their annual plans, an emphasis will be on “sustainable growth,” according to the release. That means helping the local outdoor sectors grow at a pace the communities can handle while maintaining resilience to climate change and natural disasters.
“Anybody who opens their eyes has seen the impact of natural disasters on our country,” Bloom said. “We really need to start thinking about how we are going to approach recreation, knowing that we have these challenges ahead of us.”
Priorities for the first plan will include the development of affordable housing around gateway communities and giving more opportunities for people of color, low-income residents, and members of the LGBTQ community to visit outdoor recreation spaces.
“The communities that do best in developing these recreation economies are the ones that have everyone at the table,” Perkins said. “So many people are craving recreation right now; closing that faucet is tough. But if you can think about how you want to open the faucet and invite people to your community, and the messaging you want to share with them about how to be a responsible visitor, that’s where this work really benefits everyone.”
The program is already attracting attention from state-based groups such as the Alaska Outdoors Association and other agencies within the Forest Service, she said.
Bloom said the program aims to boost both environmental stewardship and economic benefit.
“You can’t ask people to decide between putting food on the table and conserving nature,” she said. “But if I can help somebody put food on the table by conserving nature, that’s a success for me.”
by Adam Goldstein, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: email@example.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Laurel Ridge Community College selected for FAA training program
Laurel Ridge Community College is excited to announce that its drone program has been accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Initiative program (UAS-CTI).
The college offers two career studies certificates (CSCs) related to drones, also referred to as small, unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS. One CSC is for sUAS Flight Operator, designed to help students prepare for the FAA Remote Pilot Certification Exam, known as Part 107, in addition to training them in general maintenance and repair, data collection and processing of aerial images, videos and spatial data.
The second CSC is for sUAS Flight Technician, preparing students for flight mission planning, ground control operations, crew management, sensor selection, drone programming, geospatial analysis and more. Students can use both certifications towards the completion of an associate of applied science degree in technical studies.
“Our two certificates recently received approval from our regional accreditor and the program is now an FAA-approved Collegiate Training Initiative program, which when combined with our assortment of enterprise-level multirotor and fixed-wing drones, will provide our students with the knowledge, skill, and flight time to launch a career as a remote pilot,” said Dr. Craig Santicola, dean of Laurel Ridge’s School of Professional Programs. “We are excited to be a regional resource for uncrewed aircraft systems and look forward to serving our students and community in this capacity.
“Being a part of the FAA UAS Collegiate Training Initiative provides us access to a wealth of opportunities. Not only will we help lead the regional dialogue with local governments and industry to address labor force needs, our students will benefit from a variety of training tools, resources, and guidelines that will prepare them for careers. In working with the FAA and our regional partners, the goal is to prepare a pipeline of sUAS professionals while continuing to maintain the safety of the National Airspace System.”
Members of the UAS-CTI are invited to participate in annual meetings and other FAA events, and the FAA will serve as a facilitator for developing and sharing best practices.
“As a UAS-CTI member, Laurel Ridge will receive numerous benefits, including recruiting and marketing opportunities, access to FAA resources, having our name listed on the FAA’s website and technical support,” said Computer Science Professor Melissa Stange, who is a certified remote pilot. “More importantly, our students will receive help with job placements, internships and other opportunities. Not only are drones a career field, but part of a growing technology key to other programs the college offers, including Administration of Justice, Computer Science, Emergency Medical Services, Information Systems Technology and Cybersecurity.”
Dean Santicola noted that since the sUAS industry is still relatively new, many people might not have considered drone pilot as a viable career option.
“However, we are seeing an increase in use across many industries in Virginia and the region as a whole, and our career studies certificates are focused on training students to operate high-quality, enterprise-level drones for commercial applications,” said Dr. Santicola. “Sure, flying them can be fun, but ZipRecruiter has the average salary for commercial remote pilots in Virginia listed at $70,905 and the demand for highly-qualified flight operators and flight technicians is increasing quickly. “
To qualify for the FAA’s UAS-CTI initiative, schools must offer a bachelor’s or associate degree in UAS, or a degree with a minor, concentration, or certificate in UAS. Schools must provide curriculum covering various aspects of UAS training, including hands-on flight practice, maintenance, uses, applications, privacy concerns, safety, and federal policies concerning UAS.
Learn more about Laurel Ridge’s drones courses at laurelridge.edu/drones.
The Port of Virginia completes deal for 5 ship-to-shore cranes to support preparedness, modernization plan
The Port of Virginia® recently finalized the terms of purchase for five new ship-to shore cranes that are part of an equipment renewal plan that ensures the port’s container terminals and cargo handling equipment are modern and prepared for the future.
“In order to maintain our efficiency and competitive edge, it’s important to be continually upgrading with modern equipment,” said Stephen A. Edwards, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. “These cranes will ensure our lift capacity, berth productivity and the ability to handle multiple ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs) simultaneously at our primary container terminals, Virginia International Gateway (VIG) and Norfolk International Terminals (NIT).”
These cranes will be able to accommodate the ULCVs, that are making regular stops in Virginia and even higher-volume ships of the future. Each crane has the capacity reach across a vessel that is 26 containers wide, which is three-to-four containers beyond the reach of most cranes.
Delivery is set for December 2024 with two of the units going to VIG and three to the South Berth at NIT; the port will retire an equivalent number of existing cranes at those facilities. Once in place, the port will have 30 ship-to-shore cranes at work in the Norfolk Harbor and the ability to service the biggest container ships at sea.
“We are in an expansion phase and we must be able to further improve our productivity and capabilities,” Edwards said. “We are showing our customers and port users that they can continue to count on The Port of Virginia as they grow their vessel sizes and cargo volumes.”
The port is engaged in a significant rail capacity expansion program at NIT and nearing the start of the civil engineering needed to begin a complete renovation and modernization of NIT’s North Berth.
- Builder: Shanghai-based Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., Ltd, (called ZPMC),
- Crane height = 170’ above the dock
- Boom-out length = 226’ from the rail closest to the water
- Per unit weight = 1,827 tons
- Combined total cost (5 units) = $61.6 million, delivery included
(The Virginia Port Authority (VPA) is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The VPA owns and through its private operating subsidiary, Virginia International Terminals, LLC (VIT), operates four general cargo facilities Norfolk International Terminals, Portsmouth Marine Terminal, Newport News Marine Terminal and the Virginia Inland Port in Warren County. The VPA leases Virginia International Gateway and Richmond Marine Terminal. A recent economic impact study from The College of William and Mary shows that The Port of Virginia helps to create more than 437,000 jobs and generated $1 billion in total economic impact throughout the Commonwealth on an annual basis.)
Dr. Robert Kidd named dean of Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy
Robert Kidd, Pharm.D., Ph.D., a stalwart of Shenandoah University’s pharmacy program, is the new dean of SU’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy.
Dr. Kidd, who has served as interim dean of SU’s pharmacy school since the departure of Rob DiCenzo, Pharm.D., in October 2021, moves into the role full time effective immediately. Kidd has been a faculty member in Shenandoah’s School of Pharmacy since 1998, when the school’s first graduating class was beginning its third year in the program.
A highly competitive national search was conducted for the position, and Kidd’s appointment was strongly supported by both the Shenandoah’s search committee and the campus community.
“I am honored to be selected as the dean of Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy,” Kidd said, “and I am excited to work with everyone in the school and university to continue to advance the school, the university, and the pharmacy profession.”
Kidd holds a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Cellular Biology, a Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences and a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) from the University of Tennessee, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Pharmaceutical Sciences from The Ohio State University.
His research interests are pharmacokinetics and pharmacogenomics, and he frequently involves students in his research projects. Kidd has authored over 90 peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, abstracts, and national presentations. He is a two-time recipient of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) SU teacher of the year award and is a fellow of the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education (AFPE).
In 2020, Kidd led the development and implementation of Shenandoah University’s SARS-CoV-2 pooled saliva surveillance testing program, which played a central role in maintaining the health and safety of the university and the surrounding community throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Dr. Kidd is an essential part of the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy and is held in high regard by his colleagues and students. He supports the individual development of all in SU’s pharmacy program, and his rational, transparent and collaborative approach to decision-making stands out to all who interact with him,” said Shenandoah Provost Cameron McCoy, Ph.D. “Dr. Kidd has displayed tremendous leadership during his time as interim dean, and I’m excited to see that continue. His long-term commitment to Shenandoah University and the level of trust he has built with faculty, staff and students make him an excellent fit as the leader of the School of Pharmacy.”
Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy has 41 faculty members and over 450 students enrolled in its traditional and non-traditional Doctor of Pharmacy programs, as well as dual degree programs: Pharm.D./Master of Science in Pharmacogenomics & Personalized Medicine; Pharm.D./MBA; and Pharm.D./Master of Public Health. These programs are offered at Shenandoah’s Health Professions Building in Winchester and at its Inova Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax, and online.
The school’s Doctor of Pharmacy program is fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).
For more information about Shenandoah University’s Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy, visit su.edu/pharmacy.
Maryland’s legal cannabis market to be shaped by many hands
With lawmakers facing a July 1 deadline to provide a framework for the legal use, possession, and sale of cannabis after voters approved full legalization in November, it’s clear, just a week into the General Assembly session, that the task won’t be straightforward.
While the public is generally enthusiastic about legalization, which passed with 67% support and received more votes than new governor Wes Moore, legislators have a lot of work to do to build a legal market that fulfills their commitments on issues like equity, public safety, taxation, and revenue.
“The people of this state have spoken, and they have spoken loudly,” said Moore at a press conference Thursday. “We cannot, and we will not repeat the mistakes that the state has made when medical cannabis was legalized…we have to get this right from day one.”
While lawmakers are committed to meeting the July 1 deadline, the state of the legal cannabis market nationwide remains an unwelcome specter hanging over the process. An oversupply crisis has depressed cannabis prices, decreasing margins for producers and making it far more difficult for small producers to compete with well-established companies that can produce and distribute at scale. The national spot price of legal cannabis reached an all-time low of $950 per pound in December 2022, according to Cannabis Benchmarks.
Without what they feel is a viable model to look to, lawmakers are instead trying to avoid other states’ mistakes.
“We’re starting from the ground floor,” said Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. “All we know is what they didn’t do right.”
Wilson and his committee colleagues will have an important role to play in the legalization process: regulating the supply of legal cannabis through licensing and taxation.
The number of licenses distributed and the process of obtaining a license to produce and sell cannabis products in Maryland will largely dictate who can enter the legal market. Moreover, supply will play a large role in determining the price Marylanders pay for cannabis products, a crucial factor in convincing consumers to abandon the illicit market, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Given the less-than-successful history of the United States’ war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on Black Americans, legislators seem committed to fostering equitable access to the legal market.
“I’m very worried about this issue…this is always how we’ve done things, where we allow rich people to capitalize and profit, and then we put some minor appeasement in there to placate people that have been harmed (by marijuana) and don’t have the equity, the money upfront, to get involved,” said Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore City.
“I think equity has to be across-the-board considered for everything we do,” said Del. Lily Qi, D-Montgomery, who, along with Wilson, is a member of both the Economic Matters Committee and the Cannabis Legalization Working group, which held hearings on several aspects of the legalization process while the General Assembly was out of session.
While neither Wilson nor Qi explicitly answered what percentage of licenses should go to members of marginalized groups, Wilson hinted at a few policies his committee was considering to ensure an equitable system.
Foremost among them is keeping the license application fee reasonably low. In some states, this cost can reach six figures, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, and serve as a significant barrier to entry for small business owners without a lot of startup capital.
“(The application fee) cannot be high, and it must be refundable,” said Wilson, who added that six-figure application fees were “not the goal.”
Also of concern is keeping taxes low, which lawmakers said they hope will have the dual effect of allowing more producers to enter the market and keeping legal cannabis prices reasonable, an important factor in allowing new market entrants to chip away at the illicit market.
For some advocacy groups, guarantees on equity in employment and working conditions in the industry are just as important as equity in ownership or licensing.
“As a union, we bring a lot of concern around employment practices and how employees are treated, how well they’re compensated, and are they able to share in the success of their industry,” said Jonathan Williams, spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, which represents cannabis workers in Maryland.
Economic Matters will be just one of several committees to work on a chunk of the cannabis framework. The House Judiciary Committee, and perhaps others, will look at undoing another one of the lasting legacies of the war on drugs: thousands of convictions for cannabis-related offenses, which can often serve as barriers to the job market for those convicted.
Judiciary Committee member Christopher Bouchat, R-Carroll, who was convicted of a crime and charged as an adult at age 16, recalled firsthand the impact of such a criminal conviction.
“For the rest of my life, I have that assault conviction on my record. And I think that having felt that, I understand the impact that cannabis convictions have on adults trying to get employment.”
For the new governor, expungement is a crucial part of the legalization process, and righting the wrongs of the last 40 years has been central to his message on this issue.
“As we have said, we cannot talk about the benefits of legalization if we’re also not willing to wrestle with the consequences of criminalization,” said Moore at the press conference.
While Moore supports expunging records of all those convicted solely of marijuana possession, other lawmakers worry that his plan does not go far enough to protect those convicted on other charges or of a cannabis-related felony.
“We know that felony convictions are what harm people from getting jobs, housing, and other opportunities. The stigma of felonies is the problem. Misdemeanor possession is hurting very few people,” said Carter, a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee member. She added that institutions, including many police departments around the state, now allow officers with prior misdemeanor possession convictions on the force. Carter has introduced legislation to give judges more flexibility in expunging records.
Lawmakers are also tasked with figuring out a plan for the tax revenue cannabis legalization will generate. In a meeting with the House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup during the interim, consultants from the Marijuana Policy Project suggested that cannabis legalization could generate over $1 billion in revenue for the state.
Responsibility for that tax plan will fall to the House Ways and Means Committee, whose membership includes Prince George’s County Delegate and Cannabis Working Group member Darryl Barnes.
“This is an exciting time in the history of the state of Maryland,” said Barnes, adding, “we have an opportunity to put forward legislation that impacts a billion-dollar-plus industry that’s coming, but, more importantly, to frame the conversation around equity and inclusion. And that is the most important thing to me, as well as looking at how we will tax this where it’s fair and equitable for those participating.”
By GREG MORTON
Capital News Service