Maryland lawmakers convened for another meeting on Tuesday to consider marijuana legalization issues, focusing on equity, as voters in the state are set to decide on the reform at the ballot next week.
Voters will consider a simple legalization referendum next Tuesday, and if they approve it, it will trigger the implementation of a complementary piece of regulatory implementation legislation.
Del. Luke Clippinger (D) sponsored both the referendum bill as well as the implementation measure, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) let take effect without his signature. The delegate also serves as the chair of the legislative marijuana workgroup that’s been meeting to better understand the issue and explore regulatory options and concerns.
That group—which was formed last year by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D)—has looked at the issue from a wide range of perspectives, exploring topics like regulatory authority, licensing and equity for those who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the drug war.
At the latest meeting, members of the Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup reviewed a presentation that looked at how other states that have legalized cannabis have addressed equity considerations, especially the lack of minority business ownership in the industry.
The presentation from Mathew Swinburne of the University of Maryland and the Network for Public Health Law explained, for example, how Connecticut’s cannabis program allows for equity joint ventures, where existing bigger companies can partner with equity applicants to provide the infrastructure to operate a marijuana business.
Del. C.T. Wilson (D), co-chair of the task force, expressed some skepticism about that proposal, stating that he doesn’t want to create a system where large cannabis companies are able to profit off the backs of equity applicants, effectively making the “rich richer.”
Another option for Maryland would be to help equity applicants get a head start by doing something similar to what New York is doing with its Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) Licenses, giving justice-impacted people licensing prioritization and providing the new businesses with ready-made storefronts to operate in.
Massachusetts, for its part, also has special licensing opportunities for cannabis couriers and delivery operators, which were made available exclusively to “Certified Economic Empowerment Priority Applicants” and “Social Equity Program Participants”
Wilson also said during Wednesday’s hearing that he wants to ensure that any progress in promoting industry equity aren’t undone as the market matures, with licenses being bought up by corporate players.
“The set asides that I’m seeing through the other states—my concern with those is, what’s to stop all white dudes from just coming out right afterwards and buying that license up?” he said. “Because, again, in five or 10 years, if we don’t have 30 percent minority participation in the market of Maryland, then we have failed as a General Assembly.”
Here’s the exact language of Question 4 that’s going before voters on Tuesday:
“Do you favor the legalization of the use of cannabis by an individual who is at least 21 years of age on or after July 1st, 2023, in the state of Maryland?”
For his part, Maryland House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), who is also a member of the legislative workgroup, said in September that he will be voting in favor of legalization at the ballot, but he added that the vote is “the beginning of the conversation.”
The language of the referendum itself is straightforward. Where the more complex aspects of the reform come into play is with the complementary HB 837.
Under that legislation, the purchase and possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis would be legal for adults. The legislation also would remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 2.5 ounces. Adults 21 and older would be allowed to grow up to two plants for personal use and gift cannabis without remuneration.
Past convictions for conduct made legal under the proposed law would be automatically expunged, and people currently serving time for such offenses would be eligible for resentencing. The legislation makes it so people with convictions for possession with intent to distribute could petition the courts for expungement three years after serving out their time.
The legalization bill was amended throughout the legislative process. For example, language was attached to create a community reinvestment fund and allow state tax deductions for certain cannabis-related expenses that marijuana businesses are barred from claiming under current federal tax code.
If voters pass the referendum question, the reform wouldn’t take effect immediately. Possession of small amounts of cannabis would become a civil offense on January 1, 2023, punishable by a $100 fine for up to 1.5 ounces, or $250 for more than 1.5 ounces and up to 2.5 ounces. Legalization for up to 1.5 ounces wouldn’t kick in for another six months.
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Advocates have taken issue with that protracted timeline. Having possession legalization take effect sooner was among several asks they made that were not incorporated into the legislation. They also wanted lawmakers to include a provision preventing police from using the odor of marijuana alone as the basis for a search.
Adult-use legalization began to advance through Maryland’s legislature in the 2021 session, but no votes were ultimately held. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing last year on a legalization bill, which followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal.
Maryland legalized medical cannabis through an act of the legislature in 2012. Two years later, a decriminalization law took effect that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana with a civil fine of $100 to $500.
Meanwhile, the governor separately allowed a bill to create a state fund to provide “cost-free” access to psychedelics like psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine for military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury to take effect without his signature this year.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.