Health Care

No affirmative action for who gets to sell Missouri medical marijuana, state says

Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana

Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana
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Local aquaponics founder Dre Taylor wants equity for minorities when it comes to the industry of legal marijuana

Missouri’s health department does not plan to give minority-owned businesses a boost when deciding who gets licenses to grow and sell medical marijuana — a measure some black Kansas City residents believe would help ensure equal opportunity.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said this week the license applications will be stripped of all identifying information about the owners, including their race, during the selection process.

The intent is to prevent corruption, but Dre Taylor, the owner of a Kansas City aquaponic agriculture business, said a side effect will be to shut out black and Latino communities that have been disproportionately targeted for marijuana-related arrests in the “War on Drugs” that began in the 1980s. And he worries that larger corporations that can easily afford the application fees will dominate over smaller, local businesses.

“Spent 30 years criminalizing a certain population, you would think you would have something set up (for medical marijuana) in terms of equity,” said Taylor, who is black and owns Nile Valley Aquaponics. “Like I said, you can’t rewrite the wrongs, but you can start with some sort of programs.”

Two Kansas City-area Democrats, state Sen. Kiki Curls and Rep. Barbara Washington, have introduced bills in Jefferson City that would compel the health department to give minority- and women-owned businesses a slight edge in the application process.

But the bills have gone nowhere so far in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

“They’re more looking at that free market situation as opposed to having any type of equity for minorities,” Taylor said.

Sales of legal medical marijuana in Missouri are projected to top $100 million by 2025, and the licensing process is shaping up to be competitive, even though the state hasn’t started vetting applications until August.

The health department is required to grant at least 24 dispensary licenses in each of Missouri’s eight congressional districts, for a total of 192. It has already received at least 256 applications, and District 5, which includes Kansas City, leads the pack at 63.

In other states that have legalized medical marijuana, like Washington, the economic benefits have disproportionately gone to white men.

But states that have tried to address those disparities through race-based affirmative action programs, like Maryland and Ohio, have had those programs challenged in court.

The Missouri health department’s rules for the upcoming medical marijuana program are still in draft form, and residents can submit feedback online.

But department officials said they intend to put out a request for bids soon for an “independent blind scorer” for the license applications.

“We are committed to transparency and fairness and want to emphasize that the reviewers of applications will be blinded to the identity of applicants,” said health department director Randall Williams. “Those granted a license or certificate will be selected solely upon the content of their applications, and those assigning scores to applications will have no access to applicants’ identifying information.”

Lyndall Fraker, the director of the medical marijuana program, said the application process would still include some race-based incentives.

“The fact that race is not a question on the application does not mean that diversity is not potentially addressed,” Fraker said via email “Questions for applicants call for diversity to be considered in hiring. An applicant’s business plan may include those considerations.”

Applications will be judged on the qualifications and background of the principal owners and managers, their business plan, their site security, their experience in a legal marijuana market, their technical expertise and the potential for economic impact in their community.

Application fees range from $6,000 for dispensaries and marijuana product manufacturing facilities to $10,000 for grow operations.

Taylor said that without a formal way to encourage people from places like his neighborhood to go through the application process, it would likely be dominated by large operators from the 32 other states that have already legalized medical marijuana.

“Yeah I mean they’re already here,” Taylor said. “Multi-state operators are already setting up tents here. It’s a new market, so they’re trying to get market share in Missouri.”

To be eligible for a license to grow, manufacture or sell marijuana products, businesses must be at least 51 percent owned by someone who has lived in Missouri at least a year.

But Taylor said he had already been contacted by a couple of out-of-state investors asking him to sign on to their business plans to help check that box for them.

He said he’s not interested in doing that, though, in part because he’s not confident he would be treated fairly in those partnerships and in part because his hope was to get more young black men from his neighborhood involved in the legal marijuana trade.

He said he still wants to do that, but he’s turning his attention to hemp, a marijuana relative that is less legally restricted because it includes little to no THC, the part of the plant that produces a “high.”

“I continue to work to have equity whether it’s cannabis or hemp,” Taylor said. “I know there’s a limited space for cannabis, so my hope is for those who want to get involved in the industry to create a space for them in the hemp industry where there’s not as many restrictions and regulations.”

In June, the state will publish application forms for patients seeking to use medical marijuana. It will begin evaluating them the following month.

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.