Maryland Will Prioritize Wronged Black Farmers For Cannabis Business Licenses; Here’s Why | GUEST COMMENTARY

On Oct. 9, the Maryland Cannabis Administration (MCA) began accepting applications for the first cannabis business licenses to be issued pursuant to the Cannabis Reform Act — the new state law legalizing the cultivation, manufacture and sale of cannabis for adult consumers.

A total of five licenses to cultivate cannabis will be available in this first application round (there are 22 businesses currently authorized to grow cannabis in the state), which ends Dec. 7. Applicants will be limited to members of the Pigford v. Glickman class action litigation against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who can provide documentation of class membership and proof of farming operations in Maryland.

Who are these farmers? And, why is the state prioritizing them as applicants for cannabis business licenses?

Pigford was initiated by Black farmers against the USDA for racially discriminatory practices in awarding farm loans and assistance in the 1980s and 1990s. Across the country, Black farmers were denied USDA farm loans at significantly higher rates, or forced to wait longer for loan approval, than white farmers. According to a 1994 review conducted by USDA itself, loans to Black males averaged 25% less than those given to white males; and 97% of disaster payments went to white farmers, while less than 1% went to Black farmers.

As part of a 1999 settlement, USDA agreed to pay up to $50,000 to qualifying Black farmers or their heirs. However, due to tight filing deadlines and a lengthy appeals process, tens of thousands of Black farmers who had been discriminated against either failed to file a claim or were disqualified from receiving payment.

Even after, the settlement data suggest that Black farmers are still facing inequitable treatment. Black farmers continue to receive a disproportionately low share of direct loans and have applications rejected at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

By prioritizing grower licenses to Pigford class members, we are using this unique opportunity of establishing a new industry to redress specific and long-standing harms and discrimination faced by Black farmers.

Moreover, while the number of farms is decreasing nationwide, Black farmers have seen the largest rate of decline. And, this decline is even more pronounced in Maryland. In 1982, at the beginning of the Pigford class period, there were reportedly 14,040 individual or family farms in Maryland, operating over 1.8 million acres of farmland. Of these, 551 farms were operated by Black families, accounting for approximately 25,000 acres of land. By the end of the Pigford period, in 1997, the state had over 10,000 individual or family farms, with only 183 Black family farms remaining. Over the 15-year period of proven USDA discrimination, Maryland lost over two-thirds of its Black-owned family farms — nearly twice the rate of family-farm loss statewide.

The most recent data from the USDA shows that as of 2017 there were only 169 farms in Maryland primarily operated by Black farmers, controlling just over 8,000 acres.

In the Cannabis Reform Act — co-sponsored by me, Del. C.T. Wilson, and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary — the Maryland General Assembly created a licensing opportunity specifically for Pigford members. Maryland’s new adult-use and medical cannabis market presents exciting opportunities, with total retail sales already surpassing $300 million in the first three-plus months. By prioritizing grower licenses to Pigford class members, we are using this unique opportunity of establishing a new industry to redress specific and long-standing harms and discrimination faced by Black farmers. Many of the Pigford litigants faced substantial financial hardship and a loss of generational wealth over the decades of USDA discrimination. While a cannabis license will not undo the past, it can help redress some of the financial harms suffered by Black farmers in Maryland.

Further, by making these the first licenses available, we are seeking to promote diversity and equity in the cannabis industry. Maryland is leading by example to make its cannabis industry one that reflects the incredible diversity of the state’s population, while simultaneously seeking to right historical wrongs. The Pigford grower licenses are just the first example of this, with subsequent licensing rounds and associated funding benefiting the individuals and communities who were the subject of disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition.

Interested applicants should contact Del. C.T. Wilson ( is chair of the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee.

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