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‘Tornado of misinformation’ spawns bill limiting county authority over cannabis


‘Tornado of misinformation’ spawns bill limiting county authority over cannabis

Feb 26, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Bryan P. Sears
‘Tornado of misinformation’ spawns bill limiting county authority over cannabis
House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles). Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

An effort by some counties to use zoning to limit if not prevent the opening of cannabis dispensaries has drawn the ire of the powerful chair of a House committee in Annapolis.

House and Senate panels are considering legislation that would make it tougher for local governments to restrict where cannabis dispensaries can locate. House Economic Matters Committee Chair Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said counties are trying to countermand the newly legalized cannabis market and the state’s efforts to limit if not end illegal sales.

In the months that followed the first legal recreational sales in July, some counties looked to zoning to slow the opening of new dispensaries. Those efforts are now the focus of legislation designed to block those attempts, which sometimes seek to prevent any sales of the drug or are born out of the concerns about the clustering of alcohol and tobacco shops in Black and brown communities.

“This was thought out,” said Wilson, speaking of the state’s entry into legal recreational cannabis sales. “This was not done randomly. And this is not about state control. It is about protecting people, protecting us and protecting a now legitimate business. So I want to make sure we understand that we are not here to stuff them, to cluster them.”

Wilson’s HB 805 prohibits counties from imposing zoning regulations more restrictive than those imposed on retail liquor stores. Current law prohibits dispensaries within 500 feet of a playground, recreation center, library, public park, or place of worship. Wilson’s bill qualifies that restriction to pre-existing facilities.

Wilson said he will ask for an amendment to increase the distance between dispensaries from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet.

Counties can reduce but not increase the statutory distance requirements for dispensary locations.

Some lawmakers worry the bill will usurp county zoning authority.

Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), chair of the Education, Energy and Environment Committee and sponsor of the identical SB 537, said the state has the same interest in ensuring cannabis dispensaries can open as it does ensuring counties allow clean energy production.

“We need energy,” said Sen. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “We don’t need cannabis.”

Some legislators representing rural, mostly Republican counties, also oppose the proposed changes.

Del. Steven J. Arentz (R-Upper Shore) said counties such as those he represents are being punished for what has happened in other counties.

“You’re taking other people’s problems, making them ours,” said Arentz.

The bill has the support of the Maryland Association of Counties, which is proposing certain amendments.

The first would expand the minimum distance between dispensaries to 2,000 feet. The association also wants to keep dispensaries more than 100 feet from residential areas.

“If my kid’s out front playing in the yard, I think it’s reasonable to expect that they wouldn’t be 100 feet from a cannabis dispensary,” said Kevin Kinnally, legislative director for the association.

The state is about to dramatically expand its cannabis industry as the result of a 2023 law.

Currently, there are 101 licensed dispensaries in the state. The licenses are distributed relatively equally across the state’s 47 legislative districts. Another 75 licenses are about to be issued in a social equity round.

When it is all said and done, there will be a maximum of 300 dispensaries in the state.

There are about 6,500 liquor licenses in the state.

Prince George’s County has 18.1 liquor stores per 100,000 people, according to the Prince George’s County Health Department.

That same county of roughly 1 million people is eligible for about 20 total cannabis dispensary licenses.

Nineteen of the state’s 24 major political subdivisions will receive between one and three of those social equity dispensary licenses in the coming round. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties will receive nine and 11 will go to Baltimore City, according to the Maryland Cannabis Administration.

“I honestly am sorry, I just don’t trust counties to do it because I’ve watched what they’ve done,” Wilson said. “They complain about the way the smoke shops open up and they give them [use and occupancy permits] and they give them health occupancy, the health licenses to open up.”

Last year, the Prince George’s County Council considered legislation prohibiting cannabis dispensaries in commercial zones. The bill would have pushed dispensaries into industrial areas, which include business parks. That bill was not acted on.

But the council, in a letter this month, asked the county’s legislative delegation to oppose Wilson’s bill.

Wilson blasted unnamed local officials who have complained their counties will be flooded with dispensaries in the same way liquor stores have proliferated or that the state law would allow vape and smoke shops to also sell cannabis. He complained about what he called “a tornado of misinformation.”

“It becomes irresponsible at some point for some of the county officials to propagate these lies,” Wilson said.