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Marijuana Legalization Bill Sponsored By Maryland Senate Leaders Gets Hearing As Lawmakers Work To Merge With House Plan

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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.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 800 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

“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.”

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.”

Tennessee Senators Approve Medical Marijuana Bill In Committee

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

Business

New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid

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Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.

The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.

The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.

One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.

“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.

Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.

Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.

“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”

Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.

“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.

The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.

“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.

Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.

Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.

In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.

Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.

A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.

Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.

The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.

Read the full text of the new legislation below:

Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021 by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Ensuring Access to Counseli… by Marijuana Moment

Homegrown Act by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

 

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Politics

Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.

She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.

The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.

Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.

“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”

Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.

Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”

The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.

Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.

Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.

She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.

When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.

“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”

The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.

“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”

These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.

Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.

Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”

On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Culture

How Politicians Are Celebrating The Marijuana Holiday 4/20 This Year

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The country has come a long way since the days of politicians dismissing or shying away from marijuana issues. And a good example of that shift is the ever-growing number of lawmakers who are leaning into the cannabis holiday 4/20 with calls for reform.

For example, to kick of Tuesday’s Senate session, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke on the floor about the need to end federal marijuana prohibition, saying that “hopefully the next time this unofficial holiday 4/20 rolls around, our country will have made progress.”

Then there are the tweets—so many tweets—from state and congressional lawmakers, office seekers and regulators marking the occasion. It’s become a theme each year, and as more states pursue legalization, it seems more elected officials have grown comfortable embracing the holiday in their own ways.

Here’s what politicians are saying about cannabis this 4/20: 

Members of Congress

Congressional candidates

State officials and parties

Local officials

Former federal officials

International lawmakers

Meanwhile, dozens of brands and organizations are also celebrating 4/20 with a variety of promotions, events and calls to action.

Schumer Worries Senate Marijuana Banking Vote Could Undermine Broader Legalization Push

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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