Iesha Epps admits she made mistakes as a young adult when she was charged with minor marijuana and alcohol offenses that remained on her criminal record for about seven years.

Thanks to a recent expungement clinic at Mary & Main in Capitol Heights, the 29-year-old from neighboring Waldorf in Charles County received legal assistance to erase those offenses. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and Maryland courts gradually reopening this summer, she said it could take up to 90 days to formally clean her record.

“If I want to have my own home, or need a loan for a business, [there’s no] fear of getting denied for certain things because of my record,” she said. “I’m just glad I have relief.”

Now Epps wants to be an owner in Maryland’s medical cannabis industry. The state’s Medical Cannabis Commission reported last month that retail sales exceeded $240 million. The amount surpassed all of last year’s total sales.

Nearly $41 million in sales came from dispensaries, a major retail source of cannabis products such as topical creams, fruit drinks and oils.

Hope Wiseman, 28, co-founder of Mary & Main that became the first Black-owned dispensary in the country, said the clinic ensures more Blacks receive opportunities in the medical cannabis industry. Out of nearly 100 dispensaries in Maryland, only five are Black-owned, including Wiseman’s and two others in Prince George’s County.

As the firm hosted the clinic to allow Epps and 39 other people to receive free legal assistance to remove criminal history, Mary & Main celebrated its second anniversary on Sept. 26. Wiseman said the business, which has 20 employees (15 are part-time), is considering holding another clinic early next year.

“We feel it was only right to give back,” she said. “Diversity in this business is very important.”

Lack of Black ownership in the medical cannabis industry remains a problem.

According to Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Blacks own less than 2 percent of the grower, processor and dispensary licenses nationwide.

That’s why Roz McCarthy, executive director of the nonprofit organization known as M4MM based in Orlando, Fla., said states must ensure equality in the medical marijuana industry at a time when federal law still declares marijuana use illegal.

“We are looking for funding to help their business. We are looking for mentors,” said McCarthy, whose company helped organize last month’s clinic in Maryland. “We’re creating these accelerator programs so that we can take this really infant business and really breathe life into it and help them grow and help them become sustainable.”

Pro-marijuana advocates have a major supporter: Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

“We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” she said during last week’s presidential debate in Salt Lake City.

Expand Black Representation

Minorities for Medical Marijuana’s website has posted an 80-page report titled “Understanding Social Equity” compiled by Chris Nani, an attorney and founder of Endo Insider, a newsletter that follows the cannabis industry. It calls for states to incorporate programs that restore the rights of formerly incarcerated individuals, serve as a bridge for people interested in the cannabis industry and assist in the licensing process.

The document also mentions institutional challenges facing minorities. For example, when Maryland lawmakers passed a law in 2018 for the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission to conduct a disparity study, the study found minorities are at a disadvantage in the industry.

A year later, the application process got delayed with conflicts of interests on the scoring and ranking process. The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland led in expressing some of those concerns.

The state’s cannabis commission released a report last month on last year’s process that “found no evidence of bias or undue influence in the 2019 medical cannabis application review process.”

On Oct. 1, the commission granted pre-approval for 11 new growers and processors. More than half of the owners qualified as “disadvantaged, minority and women.” The first 15 grower and processor licenses were awarded to majority-white businesses.

“I think we are moving in the right direction, especially when you talk about equity and inclusion for people of color,” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-District 25) of Upper Marlboro, who chairs the state’s Black caucus. “The focus will be the Black agenda.”

Marijuana is to be a focal point, specifically about policies to increase minority representation in the industry and join 11 other states to fully legalize it and allow for recreational use.

Del. Jazz Lewis (D-District 24) of Glenarden plans to present proposed legislation on the topic this month.

Lewis said part of the policy would permit applicants to apply in the business who reside in a census tract “that is overly policed” or reside in areas below the poverty line.

Another possibility would be to create a funding mechanism to help support the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), create a substance abuse program, retrain law enforcement on decriminalization of marijuana and train those formerly incarcerated interested into the cannabis field.

“My aim is to speak and put a flag down to say this is what equity and inclusion looks like,” Lewis said. “We are just deciding to take ownership of our destiny, for our own community. I think the time is now.”

As for Epps, she travels more than 50 miles one-way from her home in Waldorf to a full-time job, with health insurance and other benefits, at Ritual Dispensary in Anne Arundel County.

She said she feels blessed after she lost her job this year as a bartender and then got hired at Ritual six months ago. Her daily duties include working as a receptionist and advising patients on various cannabis products.

When asked if she wants to establish her own business, Epps said, “that is already in the works. That’s my mindset. I want equity in the cannabis industry.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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