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Baltimore taking steps to prepare for state funds from legal cannabis sales

Maya Lora

Baltimore Sun

A step ahead of the rest of Maryland, Baltimore is starting to plan what it wants to do with money stemming from recreational cannabis sales.

A bill that would form a Community Reinvestment and Reparations Commission is heading Monday to a likely final vote before the City Council. It appears poised to win final passage following a vote two weeks ago during which there was no opposition.

According to the legislation introduced by Council President Nick Mosby and Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, the 17-member commission would direct how the city deals with money — how much has yet to be determined — it receives from a statewide Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund. Mosby said the commission would be “doing the work to repair communities that have been harmed by the war on drugs.”

“This is putting the city in the best position,” Mosby said. “It’s gonna be the first in the state to really take advantage of the legislation that was passed at the state level.” He and Burnett are Democrats.

In the recent General Assembly session, lawmakers passed legislation authorizing the state fund to distribute money to communities that a new state Office of Social Equity, in consultation with the attorney general, determines were “the most impacted by disproportionate enforcement of the cannabis prohibition before July 1, 2022.”* *The social equity office is charged with promoting full participation in the cannabis industry, especially involving people from such communities.

The law defines a “disproportionately impacted area” as a geographic area with more than 150% of the state’s 10-year average for cannabis possession charges. Which areas meet that criteria weren’t specified in the law.

Additionally, according to the law, counties and the city of Baltimore will receive money proportionate to “the total number of cannabis possession charges in the county compared to the total number of cannabis possession charges in the state” between July 1, 2002, and Jan. 1, 2023.

The law sets aside 35% of taxes the state collects on recreational cannabis sales for fiscal years 2024 through 2033, as well as the fees medical cannabis dispensaries will pay to convert their licenses to recreational retail ones, for the state fund.* *The combined recreational and medical cannabis industry is expected to top $1 billion in revenue a year.

The law also calls for each county to establish how any money it receives should be used. Beginning in 2024, counties getting cannabis money will have to submit a report to the state explaining how the funds were spent.

Del. C. T. Wilson, a Democrat representing Charles County who guided the cannabis bill through the House, said he envisioned the Office of Social Equity distributing money to specific organizations and projects, rather than government agencies. But, he added, individual communities likely would know best where the money should go.

“Hopefully, there are some statewide standards,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure that the people applying, you know, it’s not because of some good old boy hookup to be able to get this free money, but [because] they’re legitimate.”

Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, signed the bills into law May 3. He is responsible for appointing an executive director for the Office of Social Equity.

The city’s bill calls for the mayor to appoint 16 commission members, with council input, and include the city comptroller on the panel.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“We want to be prepared as a city,” Mosby said. “The state legislation is pretty straightforward. It does not really have much wiggle room from a local perspective. There was no point of waiting.”

Baltimore’s legislation, like the state law, emphasizes allocating funding to organizations that benefit low-income communities.

But the legislation also focuses more directly on how “structurally racist and white supremacist policies” have impacted communities of color when it comes to cannabis prohibition and resulting arrest and incarceration rates. The city’s bill would require that starting in 2024, the commission make recommendations to the mayor and City Council for how the city can repair damage to racial and ethnic minority communities.

Members of the commission, according to the legislation, should be versed in the history of the resistance of “racial, ethnic, and other minority groups against discrimination, violence and inequality” and more specifically, the history of resistance of “people of African descent to white supremacy, enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and other examples of racial violence and discrimination.” Members should also be aware of the impact of previous drug law enforcement on racial and ethnic minorities, “especially people of African descent.”

Mosby also recently introduced another piece of legislation that would start a Community Reinvestment and Reparations Fund, which would be controlled exclusively by the proposed commission and receive money from the state fund, as well as any future appropriations from the state, federal or local government. If the council approves creating such a city fund, the issue would appear on a future citywide ballot as a charter amendment for voters to consider.

Dayvon Love is the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, which defines itself as a grassroots think tank that advances the public policy interests of Black Baltimoreans. Love said communities hurt by the war on drugs need direct compensation that’s not tied to participation in the cannabis industry.

“Given the data on cannabis prohibition policies, Black people are overwhelmingly impacted by it in terms of arrests, convictions, interactions with law enforcement,” Love said. “The language [in the state law] is race neutral, but the data around it is so clear, right, that one couldn’t intelligently talk about repairing the war on drugs without specifically talking about Black people. And reparations makes sense in that context.”

Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, said reparations are needed in Baltimore. He added that the concept of reparations goes beyond direct compensation and includes issues such as housing, health, incarceration and poverty.

“The irony of it is that Black people were jailed for exactly what many white entrepreneurs are doing now with cannabis,” Winbush said. “If you look at the unjust imprisonment of many small-time, Black cannabis dealers that occurred 10, 15 or as recently as five years ago, and now the billions of dollars nationally, not just in Baltimore or Maryland but nationally, that will be made by white entrepreneurs, you know, there’s an injustice there.”

The counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard have yet to determine how they would distribute any funds from the state.

“Howard County is focused on investing forthcoming Community Reinvestment and Repair Funds to begin to right historic wrongs by uplifting communities disproportionately-impacted by decades of cannabis policing and prosecution,” Mark Miller, a Howard County spokesperson, said in an email.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said the county is in the “process of determining policies and next steps” because Maryland’s new law “has a number of wide-ranging implications.” Anne Arundel County said it was awaiting additional direction from the Office of Social Equity and attorney general. Harford County also has not yet taken action, but a spokesperson confirmed there are no plans to set up a commission like Baltimore City’s.

Wilson has said he wants more diverse representation in the recreational cannabis market.* *But when asked if he would consider the state’s fund a form of reparations, he said it would be unconstitutional to declare money as specifically going to African Americans or any other racial group.

“I believe that even bringing that word in, you invite confusion and legal challenges. Which is why I focused on the war on drugs and its impact, because that’s something we can measure,” Wilson said. “This is not about color. This is not about race. This is about communities that have suffered.”

Mosby said he sees the word reparations as synonymous with communities disproportionately affected by state law. He said it will be up to the state to determine which communities those are.

“I think that the empirical data will show that specific communities have had a tremendous amount of harm based on these policies,” Mosby said. “Ultimately, this bill is to repair, I guess, the byproducts of those policies of the past. And this commission provides a pathway to do so in the city of Baltimore.”

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