A marijuana legalization bill backed by top Maryland lawmakers got its first hearing on Thursday, with much of the discussion focused not on whether to end prohibition but how specifically to do it—including ways to merge the legislation with a separate proposal in the state’s House of Delegates.
While the Senate Finance Committee did not vote on the measure—which is cosponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D), Majority Leader Nancy King (D) and key committee chairs—lawmakers used the meeting to discuss provisions of the legislation and gauge the likelihood of its success.
“I wanted to get a little feedback from the committee,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Brian Feldman (D), who is also vice chair of the panel that held the hearing. “I didn’t have a good take of where the committee is and where the committee’s concerns are.”
Under Feldman’s bill, SB 708, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to four ounces of marijuana or products containing up to 1,500 milligrams of THC. They could also grow up to six cannabis plants at home for personal use.
The bill is largely similar to House Bill 32, introduced late last year by Del. Jazz Lewis (D) and revised last month to better align with the Senate legislation. Though the two bills are now largely similar, important differences remain around business licensing, social equity and other regulatory matters.
Feldman told Senate colleagues he’s been working with Lewis to unify the two measures. “Delegate Lewis drafted his piece of legislation, he had a hearing and he has already amended his bill to make it look more like this bill,” the senator said. “By the same token, I’m working on a package of amendments myself to get this bill a little closer to Delegate Lewis’s.”
Feldman added that he has not yet introduced those amendments because he wanted to incorporate feedback from the committee. “If there is a will to move a bill this session, I commit to working with Delegate Lewis,” he said. “The differences now are actually very narrow, and I’m pretty confident we can come up with one bill.”
Most of the differences between the two bills center on the licensing and regulatory processes. The House bill, however, is the preferred bill among social and racial equity advocates, including Del. Darryl Barnes (D), chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus.
“Cannabis prohibition has devastated communities and has been a tool of racial oppression,” Barnes, who in past sessions has opposed legalization, said in a statement earlier this week. “I was ready to support the legalization bill after I saw how HB 32 would ensure Black communities that have been devastated by cannabis prohibition would benefit, in the form of community reinvestment, small business ownership, jobs training and good careers, along with expungement.”
Both bills would set up equity funds designed to help address the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs, which has been enforced unfairly against Black, brown and low-income people, along with other marginalized groups.
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“We’re talking reentry programs, scholarship assistance, money for HBCUs, housing assistance, homeownership, small business loans, community-based workforce development—that’s all in this bill,” Feldman said at Thursday’s hearing, claiming the proposal “would provide the strongest set of social equity programs of any state in the nation.”
Under both bills, existing medical marijuana businesses could pay a fee in order to be able to participate in the adult-use market. Those fees—$1 million under the House legislation and $750,000 under the Senate bill—would fund a Social Equity Startup Fund, which would provide application assistance and financing to social equity applicants.
Both bills would also give equity applicants an advantage when scoring license applications, and they would reserve access to certain license categories, such as transportation and delivery, exclusively to equity applicants.
But where they diverge, HB 32 tends to favor more inclusive measures. The bill would funnel more money into the newly created equity funds, for example, and create unlimited so called micro-grow licenses in an effort to expand access to the new industry. The Senate bill, by contrast, would set a hard cap on small grows.
“Capping micro-grow licenses reduces opportunity for small and minority-owned businesses and will prevent social equity producers and retailers from knowing they will be able to secure a cultivation license,” the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) explained in a post comparing the two bills. “This would put these new small businesses at a competitive disadvantage compared to large, vertically-integrated growers they would have to depend on for supply.”
HB 32 also includes a “race to the top” provision that would require marijuana businesses to show community benefits—related to diversity, labor practices, environmental stewardship and equity contributions—in order to expand beyond two locations. SB 708 does not contain that provision.
The House bill also includes language requiring a cannabis businesses to sign a peace agreement with a union after hiring its 10th employee, while the Senate bill does not.
SB 708 would prohibits regulators from increasing the number of available business licenses until 2026. Under the House proposal, regulators must consider demand and begin accepting applications for new licenses in February 2024.
Olivia Naugle, a legislative analyst for MPP, said in an email to Marijuana Moment that the group “urges SB 708 to be amended to mirror Delegate Jazz Lewis’ HB 32 and for the legislature to swiftly pass it.”
Supporters of legalization who spoke at the Senate hearing included Hope Wiseman, founder and CEO of Maryland medical marijuana company Mary and Main. Wiseman asked lawmakers to add an amendment clarifying whether cannabis taxes would be structured as a sales tax or an excise tax, however, and urged the panel to consider a flat tax rate, rather than the current plan of increasing taxes over time.
Under the Senate bill, taxes would climb from 10 percent to 20 percent over the first several years of commercial sales. The House measure would go from 15 percent to 25 percent over the same period. Both bills allow local taxes of up to 3 percent. Supporters of the phase-in say the provision is designed to keep the cost of legal cannabis stable while remaining competitive with the illicit market.
Feldman said at the hearing that SB 708 could bring in roughly $300 million per year once the market is up and running.
Among those who testified against the bill, most said they were concerned about the health and social impacts that legalization might bring. Many said they were concerned legalization would lead to increased cannabis use, especially among youth.
“It seems that we may just be willing to forgo those risks and impacts mainly because our government has a spending problem,” said Sen. Stephen Hershey (R), a member of the committee. “It’s no secret that this bill is about generating revenue.”
Sen. Joanne Benson (D), said that she’s skeptical about the bill, noting that some members of the Legislative Black Caucus helped champion medical marijuana in the state but “feel like we were left with crumbs off the table” in terms of racial equity.
“Many of us are not feeling good about passing this bill, because we felt that we got a little stung” with the prior medical cannabis legislation, she said.
Feldman replied that both the House and Senate measure “have the strongest social equity concepts in the country,” adding that more money could be sent to state equity funds if the bill were amended. “If there’s interest in moving the bill,” he said, “we can set it however we want to set it.”
A number of other Maryland legalization supporters have pointed to nearby Virginia, where lawmakers recently sent a legalization bill to the governor.
“I applaud their commitment towards advancing a sensible legalization bill that includes social equity provisions,” Del. Lewis said in a press release. “Now it is the time for Maryland to follow suit by passing HB 32.”
I am thrilled that Maryland has a real opportunity now to pass consequential and equitable cannabis legalization. My legislation, HB 32 is our best chance to give justice to those incarcerated and create a new open cannabis industry.https://t.co/MuGIgfJBax
— Delegate Jazz Lewis (@JazzforMaryland) March 5, 2021
The reform push is also gaining momentum in neighboring Washington, D.C., where Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the chairman of the District Council recently introduced competing legal marijuana bills.
Maryland legalized medical marijuana 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 with a civil fine of $100 to $500. Since then, however, a number of efforts to further marijuana reform have fallen short.
A bill last year to expand the decriminalization possession threshold to an ounce passed the House last year but was never taken up in the Senate.
In May, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a bill that would have shielded people with low-level cannabis convictions from having their records publicized on a state database. In a veto statement, he said it was because lawmakers failed to pass a separate, non-cannabis measure aimed at addressing violent crime.
Hogan has hesitated to take a strong stand on marijuana in the past, though he’s more recently signaled openness to the idea. In 2017, he declined to respond to a question about whether voters should be able to decide the issue, but by mid-2018 he had signed a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana system and said full legalization was worth considering: “At this point, I think it’s worth taking a look at,” he said at the time.
As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee in 2019 held hearings on two bills that would have legalized marijuana. While those proposals didn’t pass, they encouraged many hesitant lawmakers to begin seriously considering the change.
“There are now 15 states in the United States that have gone full-blown adult-use legalization, plus the District of Columbia,” Feldman said at Thursday’s hearing. “Just like we saw with medical cannabis, opinions are evolving dramatically very quickly.”
Federal Agency Loosens Marijuana-Related Grant Funding Restrictions For Mental Health Treatment
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) loosened restrictions this week on grant funding for state health providers and other entities that allow patients to use medical marijuana for mental heath treatment.
The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs flagged the new policy change in a notice to SAMHSA grant recipients on Monday. It said that the federal agency has removed language from its terms and conditions that until now has prevented grant funds from going to any institution that “provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders.”
This restriction led the state department to issue a memo in June warning recipients and applicants about the possible withholding of funding.
Despite the recent change, SAMHSA is still continuing a narrower ban that says federal funds themselves “may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana.”
The broader prohibition, which has now been rescinded, prompted a notice last year from Maine’s Education Department, which said is was no longer eligible for certain federal funds to support mental health programs in schools because the state allows students to access medical marijuana.
It seems the federal agency is now being somewhat more permissive.
Here’s how SAMHSA’s updated marijuana restriction reads:
“SAMHSA grant funds may not be used to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory and public policy requirements); 21 U.S.C. 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana).”
The older, more broad prohibition read:
“Grant funds may not be used, directly or indirectly, to purchase, prescribe, or provide marijuana or treatment using marijuana. Treatment in this context includes the treatment of opioid use disorder. Grant funds also cannot be provided to any individual who or organization that provides or permits marijuana use for the purposes of treating substance use or mental disorders. See, e.g., 45 C.F.R. § 75.300(a) (requiring HHS to “ensure that Federal funding is expended in full accordance with U.S. statutory requirements.”); 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(10) and 841 (prohibiting the possession, manufacture, sale, purchase or distribution of marijuana). This prohibition does not apply to those providing such treatment in the context of clinical research permitted by the DEA and under an FDA-approved investigational new drug application where the article being evaluated is marijuana or a constituent thereof that is otherwise a banned controlled substance under federal law.”
The marijuana restrictions were first added to grant award terms for Fiscal Year 2020. The language was initially carried over to Fiscal Year 2021 but was more recently switched out for the narrower language by the federal agency.
In a January 2020 FAQ that the Pennsylvania department shared from SAMHSA this June, the federal agency responded to a prompt inquiring whether grant recipients can serve patients who are “very clear about their wish to remain on their medical marijuana for their mental or substance use disorder.”
“No. The organization cannot serve a patient who is on medical marijuana for a mental or substance use disorder and wishes to remain on such treatment,” it said. “SAMHSA promotes the use of evidence-based practices and there is no evidence for such a treatment; in fact, there is increasing evidence that marijuana can further exacerbate mental health symptoms.”
While the agency seemed adamant in enforcing that policy at the time, it appears to have had a change of heart and has since loosened the restriction.
A SAMHSA spokesperson told Marijuana Moment that the new rules took effect on Sunday, but played down their significance.
“This Aug. 1 clarification simply made clearer what was already in place: SAMHSA funds should not be used to procure a federally prohibited substance,” he said in an email.
While it is true that the revised provision, as was the case in the prior language, states that federal funds cannot be used to pay for marijuana, the spokesperson avoided commenting on the new deletion of the broader prohibition on grants going to entities that otherwise allow patients to use medical cannabis to treat substance use or mental disorders.
After SAMHSA announced in 2019 that its marijuana policy would impact organizations applying for its two main opioid treatment programs and another that provides funding to combat alcoholism and substance misuse, the Illinois Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority issued notices on the impact of the rule.
Read the Pennsylvania department’s notice on the SAMHSA marijuana policy change below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Mexican Lawmakers Could Finally Legalize Marijuana Sales Next Month (Op-Ed)
The legislature missed repeated deadlines, and then the Supreme Court moved to allow homegrow. What’s next?
By Zara Snapp, Filter
Mexico has never seemed so close and yet so far from fully regulating the adult-use cannabis market.
A first Supreme Court resolution determined in 2015 that the absolute prohibition of cannabis for personal use was unconstitutional because it violates the right to the free development of personality. To reach jurisprudence in Mexico, five consecutive cases, with the same or more votes each time, must be won before the Supreme Court. This was achieved in October 2018, which detonated a legislative mandate that within 90 days, the Senate should modify the articles in the General Health Law that were deemed unconstitutional.
The first deadline came and went without the Senate modifying the articles; so the Senate requested an extension, which was granted. The second deadline to legislate expired on April 30, 2020—but another extension was provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first, it looked like the third time was the charm. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the Federal Law to Regulate and Control Cannabis in November 2020 and passed it to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, for review and approval. Since the deadline of December 15, 2020, was fast approaching, the Chamber asked for its own extension. The Supreme Court granted it (until April 20, 2021) and the bill underwent significant changes before being approved by the Chamber on March 10, and so sent back to the Senate.
The Senate certainly had enough time to review and either reject or accept the changes made by the lower house. That would have made this a shorter story. However, the Senate had other plans. Rather than approve the bill or request an additional extension, it simply did not do anything. June’s national midterm elections were approaching, and political calculations were made. The legislative process came to a standstill.
Since the Senate did not approve the bill by the deadline, the Supreme Court basically did what it had mandated Congress to do. It activated a mechanism to guarantee rights that had only been undertaken once before in Mexican history: the General Declaration of Unconstitutionality (GDU).
On June 28, the Supreme Court approved, with a qualified majority of eight of the 11 Ministers, that two articles in the General Health Law must be modified to permit adults to cultivate cannabis for personal use in their homes.
These changes were officially published on July 15, with specific instructions to the Health Secretary to approve authorizations for any adult who applies.
The GDU has certain restrictions attached, including that this is only for personal use and cannot be used to justify any commercialization of cannabis or cannabis-derived products. Adults cannot consume in front of minors, or other adults who have not expressly given their permission. Nor can they operate heavy machinery or drive while under the effects.
With the GDU, the judicial process concludes. However, the Supreme Court was clear in its final recommendations: Congress can and should legislate to clear up inconsistencies and generate a legal framework for cannabis users.
Whether the Senate decides to take up the matter again in September when it returns to its legislative session will depend largely on its political whim. The body no longer has a deadline to meet; however, there are growing calls from society to regulate the market beyond home-grow, as well as several legal contradictions that obviously need to be harmonized.
The General Health Law has now been modified and the health secretary must approve permits or authorizations for adults to cultivate in their homes. But the Federal Criminal Code has not changed—it still penalizes those same activities with sanctions ranging from 10 months to three years or more in prison.
The Supreme Court decision ignores the need for a comprehensive regulation that would allow the state to apply taxes to commercial activities, which are currently still criminalized with penal sanctions. It also overlooks the urgency of an amnesty program for the thousands of people currently incarcerated on low-level cannabis charges, or hampered by criminal records for such charges.
The Senate should now revisit the bill it initially passed. It should maintain the positive aspects of the bill, which would improve things well beyond the scope of the Supreme Court decision. These include provision for cannabis associations (permitting up to four plants per person for up to 20 members), for home-grow without the need to request authorization, and for a regulated market with a social justice perspective—allocating 40 percent (or more!) of cultivation licenses to communities harmed by prohibition and imposing restrictions on large companies.
The Senate could also build upon the previous version of the bill by eliminating simple possession as a crime, by allowing the associations to operate immediately and guaranteeing the participation of small and medium companies through strong government support.
During the last three years, and before, civil society has closely accompanied the process of creating this legislation, providing the technical and political inputs needed to move forward in a way that could have great social benefits for Mexico.
By becoming the third country in the world to regulate adult cannabis use, after Uruguay and Canada, Mexico could transition from being one of the largest illegal producers to being the largest legal domestic market in the world. As well as economic benefits, this could have substantial impacts on how criminal justice funds are spent, freeing up law enforcement dollars to focus on high-impact crimes and changing the way the state has shown up in communities that cultivate cannabis.
Rather than eradicating crops, the government could accompany communities in gaining legal licenses, provide technical assistance and improve basic services. These positive externalities of regulation could signal a shift from a militarized state of war to a focus on rights, development and social justice.
Of course, this all depends on key political actors recognizing the benefits—and that requires political will. Mexico deserves better; however, it remains to be seen whether legislators will act.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
Oregon Governor Plans To Veto Bill To Regulate Kratom Sales That Advocates Say Would Protect Consumers
The governor of Oregon has announced her intent to veto a bill that’s meant to create a regulatory framework for the sale and use of kratom for adults.
The Oregon Kratom Consumer Protection Act is bipartisan legislation that would make it so only people 21 and older could purchase the plant-based substance, which some use for its stimulating effects and which others found useful in treating opioid withdrawals.
Vendors would have to register with the state Department of Agriculture to sell kratom. The agency would be responsible for developing regulations on testing standards and labeling requirements. The bill would further prohibit the sale of contaminated or adulterated kratom products.
But while the House and Senate approved the legislation in June, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said on Sunday that she plans to veto it, in large part because she feels the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is better suited to regulate the products.
“Given there is currently no FDA-approved use for this product and there continues to be concern about the impacts of its use, I would entertain further legislation to limit youth access without the state agency regulatory function included in this bill,” the governor said.
This comes as a disappointment to advocates and regulators who share concerns about the risks of adulterated kratom but feel a regulatory framework could help mitigate those dangers and provide adults with a safe supply of products that have helped some overcome opioid addiction.
“Kratom has been consumed safely for centuries in Southeast Asia and Americans use it in the same way that coffee is used for increased focus and energy boosts. Many use kratom for pain management without the opioid side effects,” Rep. Bill Post (R), sponsor of the bill, wrote in an op-ed published in June. “The problem in Oregon is that adulterated products are being sold.”
“Kratom in its pure form is a natural product,” he said. “Adulterated kratom is a potentially dangerous product.”
Pete Candland, executive director of the American Kratom Association, said in written testimony on the bill in February that four other states—Utah, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada—have enacted similar legislation with positive results.
He said that “the number of adulterated kratom products spiked with dangerous drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and morphine in those states has significantly decreased” in those states.
Meanwhile, six states—Vermont, Alabama, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Rhode Island—have banned kratom sales altogether.
Candland said that number is actually a testament to the noncontroversial nature of the plant, as prohibition is only in effect in six states despite “a full-throated disinformation campaign on kratom by the FDA with outrageously untrue claims about kratom being the cause of hundreds of deaths.”
After failing to get kratom prohibited domestically, FDA recently opened a public comment period that’s meant to inform the U.S. position on how the substance should be scheduled under international statute.
“Kratom is abused for its ability to produce opioid-like effects,” FDA wrote in the notice. “Kratom is available in several different forms to include dried/crushed leaves, powder, capsules, tablets, liquids, and gum/ resin. Kratom is an increasingly popular drug of abuse and readily available on the recreational drug market in the United States.”
Responses to the notice will help inform the federal government’s stance on kratom scheduling in advance of an October meeting of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, where international officials will discuss whether to recommend the substance be globally scheduled.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a report to spending legislation that says federal health agencies have “contributed to the continued understanding of the health impacts of kratom, including its constituent compounds, mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine.”
It also directed the Health and Human Services secretary to continue to refrain from recommending that kratom be controlled in Schedule I.
Late last year, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) asked the public to help identify research that specifically looks at the risks and benefits of cannabinoids and kratom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year separately received more than one thousand comments concerning kratom as part of another public solicitation.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/ThorPorre.