Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Legal cannabis is coming to our communities. Despite cannabis not being federally legalized, Maryland’s government is capitalizing on the rapidly expanding business. From distributing dispensary licenses to creating a cannabis business assistance fund, the Maryland state government is creating policies that allow cannabis to be accessible. However, the Prince George’s County Council does not seem to feel the same way.
Members of the council recently proposed a bill to impose numerous restrictions on dispensary operations. This includes relegating any new stores to industrial zones, making them less accessible to existing consumers. While some of the provisions in the bill, such as barring dispensaries from being near parks, child care centers and schools, are necessary to protect our community, other measures are far too restrictive.
This catastrophic bill could severely hinder the state’s efforts to expand the industry. Further, the isolation and unfair treatment of dispensaries contributes to negative stereotypes around the industry and its users. The county council must amend the bill to remove sections that will prevent dispensaries from operating alongside other businesses.
In addition to the portions about keeping dispensaries outside of commercial areas, the bill also restricts operation near residential communities. Even liquor stores, which also sell the public a mind-altering adult-only substance, do not have this level of restriction.
Like cannabis, alcohol can also lead to unruliness, and at times, greater health and social problems. Many of the concerns council members have raised over dispensaries are equally true for liquor stores. While liquor stores also cannot be near schools or places of worship in this county, there is no bill preventing new liquor stores from opening up in shopping centers on the council’s agenda. If liquor stores can pose a greater risk to the community, why are only dispensaries being targeted by the council?
The council — along with the broader American culture — has decided to villainize cannabis, while alcohol remains widely accepted.
Since our country’s origins, Americans have been consuming large amounts of alcohol. From wine club moms to beer-drinking dads to college binge drinkers, drinking alcohol is ingrained in our culture.
In contrast, cannabis does not have such lighthearted stereotypes. Its history in America ties back to fearing Mexican immigrants, shaming of anti-Vietnam War hippies, and the villainization of inner-city communities during the War on Drugs. This fear has also been weaponized against communities of color, typified by disproportionate arrest rates. Instead of restricting cannabis so harshly, the new bill should only include limitations similar to that of liquor stores for the locations of new dispensaries.
However, we shouldn’t just treat cannabis as a vice. There are ways promoting cannabis sales can actively benefit our community. Currently, there is a 9 percent tax imposed on cannabis sales that contributes to Maryland’s Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund for areas impacted by the previous criminalization of cannabis. By allowing new dispensaries to open in commercial areas, Prince George’s County could finally provide some form of reparation for racially-motivated cannabis arrests.
In addition, many dispensaries sell medicinal cannabis to aid those affected by many common disorders. Given its clear benefits, it is irrational and counterproductive for the county to work against cannabis’ expansion.
Attempting to uphold these past fears through restriction will also hurt potential new owners who want to open dispensaries in the county. All existing county dispensaries in shopping areas and malls are exempt from the proposed regulations. Thus, any new dispensary developed in an industrial zone will be at a disadvantage compared to its peers that are more central to community economic activity. This harsh restriction discourages competition in the market, which goes directly against the state’s commitments to support aspiring dispensary owners. If the state wants to see to the success of these small business owners, the county should not unfairly interfere with their potential business.
It is reasonable to keep illicit substances away from children and places of worship, but overextending these regulations creates unnecessary obstructions to an entire industry. Protecting a community also means protecting community businesses regardless of if they sell medical cannabis, alcohol or dress shoes. Cannabis is here to stay in Maryland, and it’s time to accept that fact.
Lynelle Essilfie is a freshman public policy major. She can be reached at email@example.com.