When Dr. Candice Peters woke up Friday morning, she still couldn’t believe she was one step closer to owning a cannabis business in Maryland.

Her lingering surprise made her double check her lottery number against the one she saw chosen for a dispensary license.

Hers was one of 179 selected at random by the Maryland Cannabis Administration on Thursday during a livestreamed event.

She struggled to describe how she felt in that moment, though she remembers screaming with excitement in her home office and immediately texting friends and family.

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“I assume that’s how it would feel winning the Powerball,” she said.

More than 1,500 were eligible for Maryland’s first round of cannabis business licenses set aside for applicants who have lived or gone to school in ZIP codes with an above-average number of cannabis possession arrests during prohibition. In addition, students who attended Maryland universities with a significant percentage of students receiving need-based federal Pell Grants also qualified.

The goal was to ensure people who lived in communities most affected by the criminalization of cannabis were prioritized to carve out a share of the profits from Maryland’s new recreational industry. The General Assembly used geography to determine eligibility because of lessons learned during the 2015 distribution of Maryland’s medical cannabis licenses and advice from the Office of the Attorney General that using race or ethnicity to distribute licenses would be against the law.

Maryland is the first in the country to reserve a first round of licenses for what it is calling social equity licenses.

Peters qualified because she attended school in a Prince George’s County ZIP code before she went to college.

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Along with the other potential licensees, she had to prove her eligibility and fill out a series of detailed plans explaining her strategies for securing capital, staying in compliance with state regulations and employing a diverse staff.

The 46-year-old physician’s cannabis license allows her to open a brick-and-mortar dispensary. After celebrating with family and friends over the weekend, she and her business partner are ready to shop for commercial space and bring more people from marginalized communities into the market.

“That part is really exciting,” she said.

Peters said seeing neighbors’ and friends’ lives ruined by cannabis charges has made her passionate about ensuring legal and safe cannabis access and making sure Black entrepreneurs, like her, have a share of the market. And she wants to see Maryland’s cannabis industry succeed, she said.

Gina Lee Thomas said she screamed with joy, too, after she saw her husband Norman Thomas’ number on the screen. The couple, along with a business partner, plan to open a microdispensary business. Attending Morgan State University and submitting the required paperwork qualified Norman Thomas for the process.

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Thomas’ license would allow him to open a service that makes deliveries to customers 21 and older who order online.

The Cannabis Administration randomly selected eight applicants for this license type, two for each region — eastern, central, northern and southern. His license is one of two assigned to the southern region, which is Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties.

“It’s an awesome thing because we’ve been in this process for a long time,” Gina Lee Thomas said, adding that the multistep approval has been a lot of work.

Peters, Thomas and the other winners must pass one added round of vetting before receiving their conditional cannabis licenses. The Cannabis Administration is taking the extra step to verify ownership and business agreements after discovering straw companies trying to apply.

Once approved, they’ll join, and compete, against businesses that have been selling medical cannabis and have since converted their licenses to participate in the adult-use market. According to the state cannabis agency, Maryland has 96 dispensaries, 18 growers and 23 processors.

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The final approval process should take around two months and conditional licenses will be distributed on a rolling basis by type and region so that no one business in a category gets a head start on another, according to Cannabis Administration Director Will Tilburg.

Licensees have around 18 months to get their businesses up and running once they have their license, according to state law. Otherwise, the state can revoke it.

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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