The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission announced yesterday that it will hire a diversity consultant to examine what steps it could take to improve racial diversity in the state’s medical marijuana industry.  The announcement comes after a losing applicant for a medical marijuana license filed a lawsuit against the Commission alleging that its selection process for coveted marijuana growing licenses ignored a statutory mandate to consider the racial diversity of the applicants. The complaint alleges that the Commission was “derelict in its legislatively mandated duty to ‘actively seek to achieve racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity when licensing medical cannabis growers.’”

Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus has also criticized the lack of racial diversity in the Commission’s licensing process.  Of the 30 business that were cleared for growing and process licenses in 2016, minorities held leadership positions in only two.

Concerns about racial diversity in the cannabis industry are being echoed throughout the U.S. as more states legalize marijuana. Diversity advocates cite costly licensing fees and prohibitions on licensing approval for individuals with criminal records as two ways that state regulatory requirements disproportionately exclude people of color from marijuana-focused businesses.

That people of color should disproportionately benefit from marijuana legalization has been cited by diversity advocates as emblematic of how, across the country, minorities (particularly men) bear the disproportionate brunt of enforcement efforts when marijuana is criminalized. According to a study conducted by The Drug Policy Alliance, 70-80% of arrests for cannabis possession happen in communities of color, while it is estimated that under 1% of the growing legalized market is owned and/or operated by individuals of color.

Groups focused on diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry are hoping to improve that ownership statistic.  Last year, minority cannabis industry leaders last year created the Minority Cannabis Business Association, the first non-profit organization created to serve the specific needs of minority cannabis entrepreneurs, workers, and patients/ consumers.

States are also taking steps to improve the sector’s diversity.  Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law, for example, includes a diversity component. State officials are tasked with creating outreach programs to encourage persons of color to apply for medical marijuana licenses. It also calls on the Pennsylvania Department of Health to issue a report in 2018 evaluating the diversity in the state’s cannabis industry.