With lawmakers in Maryland preparing to consider marijuana legalization during next year’s legislative session, this week a lead proponent in the House of Delegates unveiled an early outline of what the state’s legal cannabis system could look like.
Del. Jazz Lewis (D), who prefiled the legalization bill, shared a draft of the legislation with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. While his office said it’s “still working on the bill” and that “things are subject to change,” Lewis’s current plan would legalize and regulate the cannabis, allow for sales by state-licensed businesses, expunge past convictions and establish a social equity program meant to reinvest in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.
In a statement to Marijuana Moment, Lewis said he introduced the legislation, HB0032, “because we have the data and popular opinion on our side to end prohibition.”
It is time that Maryland has a reasonable and responsible cannabis policy, and that means legalization. The prohibition on the responsible use of cannabis has done exponentially more harm than good, and has devastated communities with a heavy-handed and unfair drug policy. pic.twitter.com/p5PddQgzjt
— Delegate Jazz Lewis (@JazzforMaryland) December 22, 2020
“States that have legalized have seen a decline in teen usage due to disruptions of the illicit market,” Lewis said. “Law enforcement has mostly stated they would rather go after actual criminals than young people who shouldn’t be involved with the justice system.”
“We can and should do better,” the lawmaker continued. “We allow for the expungement of records, creating social equity businesses to include minorities and the formerly incarcerated, and we dedicate resources to revitalizing disconnected communities. The time for restoring communities and ending prohibition is now.”
The bill’s language wasn’t previously available to the public even though Lewis pre-filed it in October, according to a representative from the state’s Department of Legislative Services. “Pre-filed legislation is considered confidential until it starts to appear on the website,” that person said.
Maryland’s legislative session begins January 13, and Lewis’s legalization legislation is set for a procedural first reading that day in both the Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees.
Under the draft legislation provided to Marijuana Moment by the delegate’s office, adults 21 and older would be able to possess up to two ounces of cannabis or 15 grams of concentrate. Possession of other THC-infused products would be limited to 1,500 milligrams of total THC. Possession of more than that—up to two times the proposed limit—would be punishable by civil fine of up to $250 or up to 16 hours of community service.
Adults would also be able to grow cannabis at home for personal use, with individuals permitted to cultivate up to six plants in a location not visible from outside the property and not accessible to minors. Adults could also legally share cannabis with other adults or gift small amounts of marijuana.
Smoking cannabis in public would carry a civil fine of up to $50, though individuals could instead perform up to five hours of community service.
Landlords could prohibit tenants from smoking inside or consuming marijuana in a manner that creates an odor that disturbs other tenants, and employers would be able to fire employees for being under the influence of cannabis at work.
Legalization would also trigger automatic expungements of “standalone cannabis offenses” by October 2022. Offenses that were part of a case with other charges will be expunged by October 2023. People currently jailed or under government supervision for simple cannabis possession would be released under the proposal.
“The next step in any policy is making sure you help as many people as possible without harming others,” Lewis said. “Our bill does that as well.”
On the commercial side, Lewis’s bill would allow private cannabis retailers and delivery services. Individual municipalities could ban cannabis businesses, but they would not be able to prohibit deliveries.
Marijuana products would be subject to a 20 percent tax on the retail price in addition to Maryland’s six percent sales tax. Local governments could also impose a tax of up to three percent within their jurisdictions.
Much of the state revenue would be directed to undoing the negative consequences of the drug war, which have fallen disproportionately on racial minorities, specifically Black and Latino communities.
More than a quarter (27 percent) of revenue from taxes and fees would go to a Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund “to serve communities impacted by poverty, mass incarceration, or racism via grants to organizations utilizing evidence-proven and evaluated tactics to address these challenges,” according to a summary of the bill. Another 20 percent would go to the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities, while smaller amounts would go to zero-interest loans to social equity applicants (10 percent) and technical assistance for those applicants (three percent).
Portions of state revenue would also go to drug treatment and prevention programs (seven percent), public education about drug risks (two percent), cannabis research (two percent) and training law enforcement to recognize impaired driving (up to 1 percent).
Another quarter of all revenue would go to the state’s general fund.
As for business licensing, the proposal would prioritize diversity and inclusion by providing that only social equity applicants would be able to apply for delivery licenses. Retail licenses would be granted more broadly, but social equity applicants would be awarded extra points in the state’s application scoring process.
The bill would not set any limits on the number of cannabis businesses in the state, but only 200 retail licenses would be given out per licensed medical dispensary in the state. More retailers could be licensed later if necessary.
Advocates have cheered Lewis’s introduction of the bill, expressing optimism that some form of cannabis legalization could become law next year.
“We applaud Del. Lewis for his leadership to craft a legalization bill that is rooted in reparative justice, equity, and inclusion,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. “It would release cannabis prisoners, expunge past convictions, reinvest in communities hardest hit by the war on drugs, train Marylanders for good jobs in cannabis, and create an industry that benefits disproportionately impacted communities.”
“We are working with a coalition of organizations that are committed to legalizing marijuana in Maryland, and to getting legalization right,” she added, “and we hope to get this bill past the finish line in 2021.”
Maryland legalized medical marijuana through an act of the legislature in 2012, and a decriminalization law took effect in 2014 that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams with a civil fine of $100 to $500. But since then a number of efforts to further marijuana reform have fallen short. A bill earlier this year to expand the possession threshold to an ounce of marijuana passed the House earlier this 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 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.
It’s possible the governor will become even more open to the popular issue of cannabis legalization as he considers a potential 2024 presidential bid.
As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee in March of last year 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.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D), then the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said during those hearings that she had been “fundamentally opposed” to legalization in previous years but was increasingly “in the mindset that it’s been growing on me.”
Voters in nearby New Jersey, meanwhile, legalized marijuana for adults during last month’s general election. Lawmakers there last week sent an enabling bill to the governor to establish a framework for legal sales.
Meanwhile, top officials in neighboring Virginia are gearing up for a marijuana legalization push in 2021, with the governor including funds in his annual budget proposal to set the stage for eventual implementation.
Read the full Maryland marijuana legalization bill and a summary below:
Photo courtesy of M a n u e l
New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Effort Runs Up Against New Republican Legislature
“Eventually it will get passed. But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
By Christian Wade | The Center Square
Marijuana advocates are continuing a push to legalize the drug for recreational use in New Hampshire, but the effort faces an unlikely path in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
A bipartisan bill filed in the state House of Representatives this month would, if approved, legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and set up a system of regulation and taxation for the drug that would allow retail sales. It’s similar to proposals filed in previous legislative sessions, all of which have failed to win approval.
“The battle continues,” said Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, D-Concord, a primary sponsor of the bill. “We keep refining it and negotiating and trying to come up with something that could potentially get to the two-thirds vote needed to override the governor’s veto.”
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of weed and would authorize regulated cultivation and retail sales. Adults would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home. A state-run cannabis commission would set regulations and oversee the new industry. The proposal calls for a 9% tax on recreational pot sales.
But the measure faces a steep climb in the state legislature—which swung back to the GOP in the November 3 elections—not to mention the threat of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who opposes legalization.
McWilliams acknowledges the measure faces long odds in the biennial legislative session and said lawmakers who support the effort lack the votes to override a Sununu veto. But she said the effort is building more support with every passing year.
“Eventually it will get passed,” she said. “But I don’t think it will happen until we get a new governor.”
While marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, she said there’s a chance the new Democrat-controlled Congress and White House could lift the federal prohibition on pot.
Nationally, 68 percent of Americans back the legalization of marijuana, according to a recent Gallup poll, which noted that support has been inching up steadily over the years.
To date, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territory of Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Thirty-six states have medical marijuana programs.
New Hampshire has often been described as a “cannabis island” with neighboring states and Canada allowing recreational marijuana cultivation and retail sales.
While the Granite State decriminalized marijuana possession in 2017, recreational growing and sales are not authorized.
In 2014, the Democrat-controlled House approved a legalization bill but it failed to pass the Senate. Similar proposals have been refiled every session, but have failed to gain traction.
The state has also allowed medical marijuana dispensaries since 2013, but cultivating the drug for personal use is still a felony.
Lawmakers approved a bill in 2019 that would have allowed medical pot patients to grow their own supply, but Sununu vetoed it, citing public safety concerns.
This piece was first published by The Center Square.
American Medical Association Asks Court To Overturn Medical Marijuana Vote In Mississippi
Two medical associations are throwing their support behind a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medical marijuana ballot initiative that Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved in November, arguing that it creates “risks to public health” and places a “burden” on physicians.
The American Medical Association (AMA) and its state affiliate, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), recently filed an amicus brief backing the legal challenge being considered by the state Supreme Court, which was brought by the city of Madison just days before the election.
The lawsuit argues that legalization proposal is invalid because of a state law that dictates the percentage of signatures required per district to qualify a ballot initiative.
While Mississippi’s secretary of state and attorney general have strongly criticized the suit, calling it “woefully untimely” and contesting the merits, AMA and MSMA are backing the challenge nonetheless.
“Making sure the constitutional amendment map is followed is always important, but given the nature of the initiative at issue and the substantial ramifications it poses for Mississippi’s public health and the medical community, particular care is warranted here,” the brief states, according to a blog post published by AMA on Friday.
The groups further argue that, outside of the statutory concerns outlined in the suit, the medical cannabis legalization initiative “poses significant risks to public health and puts a burden on Mississippi physicians.”
“While it is possible there may be beneficial medicinal uses of marijuana, numerous evidence-based studies demonstrate that significant deleterious effects abound,” the brief states, adding “without question, the public health risks are immense.”
Additionally, because marijuana remains federally illegal, the voter-approved measure would put physicians in “quite the pinch,” it says. “Yet physicians will be expected by their patients (though perhaps not required by Initiative 65) to sign off on certifications to receive their supply. Perhaps no liability will lie under state law, but what about federal law?”
In fact, federal courts have ruled that doctors have a First Amendment right to discuss medical cannabis with their patients without risking federal sanction.
“As everyone knows, all it takes to file a lawsuit is a piece of paper and a filing fee, so even if a physician is judged correctly and immunity is appropriate, the matter will still have to be litigated,” the AMA and MSMA brief continues. “And with increased exposure and litigation comes increased costs, not least of which is rising professional liability insurance premiums.”
The legal challenge brought by Madison cites a state law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
Advocates see desperation in the court filing, with the medical associations now making a last-ditch effort to overturn the will of voters.
“These are cynical attempts to undermine the democratic process,” Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for NORML, said. “Legalization opponents have shown time and time again that they cannot succeed in either the court of public opinion or at the ballot box.”
“Thus, they are now asking judges to set aside the votes of over a million Americans in a desperate effort to override undisputed election outcomes,” she said. “Whether or not one supports marijuana legalization, Americans should be outraged at these overtly undemocratic tactics.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said “AMA’s position is woefully out of step with both public opinion and scientific consensus, as well as with the opinions of the majority of physicians.”
“It is regrettable that this organization would go on record in attempting to nullify the vote of a supermajority of Mississippi voters,” he said.
It’s also not especially surprising that these particular groups would join in this legal challenge given their earlier attempts to get voters to reject the reform initiative.
Weeks before the vote, AMA and MSMA circulated a sample ballot that instructed voters on how to reject the activist-led cannabis measure. The mailers said the associations were “asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
Ultimately, however, nearly 74 percent of Mississippi voters approved the legalization initiative.
It will allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. It includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA and MSMA for additional information about the brief, which has not yet been posted on the state court’s public docket, but representative did not immediately respond.
The Mississippi case is just one example of legalization opponents asking the courts to overturn the will of voters who approve marijuana reform.
In South Dakota, another legal challenge against the constitutionality of a legalization initiative is playing out. In this case, plaintiffs—with the backing of Gov. Kristi Noem (R)—are claiming that the recreational marijuana measure violates a state statute requiring that proposals that appear on the ballot on deal with a single subject.
Over in Montana, opponents of a voter-approved initiative to legalize cannabis for adult use attempted to get the state Supreme Court to invalidate the proposal ahead of the vote, but the justices rejected that request, arguing that they failed to establish the urgency needed to skip the lower court adjudication process. They didn’t rule on the merits, however.
The plaintiffs then announced they were pursuing action in a lower court, arguing that the statutory proposal unlawfully appropriates funds, violating a portion of the state Constitution that prohibits such allocations from being included in a citizen initiative.
Separately, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in September that a medical marijuana legalization initiative could not appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge, even though activists collected enough signatures to qualify.
The court determined that the measure violated Nebraska’s single-subject rule that limits the scope of what can be placed on the ballot before voters. Activists have already introduced a new initiative that they say will satisfy the court’s interpretation of state law—and their also working on a broader adult-use legalization measure.
New York Governor Releases More Details On Marijuana Legalization Proposal
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has released more details of his marijuana legalization proposal, including plans to reinvest in communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Following his State of the State address last week, in which the governor said enacting the reform could boost the economy while promoting social equity, he unveiled an outline of his agenda that provides more insights into what the state’s legal cannabis market could look like. Next, he’s expected to release the full budget proposal on Tuesday, which will contain much more detailed legislative language.
The State of the State Book released on Friday says Cuomo’s upcoming proposal would create an Office of Cannabis Management to regulate the program, establish national standards and best practices to encourage responsible marijuana consumption and provide for “robust social and economic equity benefits to ensure New York’s law will create an egalitarian adult-use market structure that does not just facilitate market entry but ensures sustained market share for entrepreneurs in communities that have been most harmed by cannabis prohibition.”
Notably, it also states that the plan will “correct past harms by investing in areas that have disproportionally been impacted by the war on drugs, understanding that expunging past cannabis convictions helps to correct the injustice faced on the day that someone was arrested, but fails to correct the lasting harms that arrest has had on citizens, families, and communities.”
That’s important, as the governor in past years has pushed for marijuana tax revenue to be put into the state’s general fund, rather than specifically allocating resources for community reinvestment, as some lawmakers and advocates have urged.
That said, it remains to be seen exactly how the governor’s forthcoming budget will go about “investing” in communities that have been harmed by past prohibition enforcement and whether it will be deemed adequate by legislators and activists who have balked at his past proposals.
Cuomo has included legalization in his last two annual budget plans, but the issue has consistently stalled over details in negotiations.
That said, the legislature will have more influence this year after Senate Democrats secured a supermajority in the November election. If Cuomo were to veto any bill over details he didn’t like, they could potentially have enough votes to override him.
The governor’s new outline also talks about making investments in research into harm reduction and education campaigns to deter youth use and impaired driving.
“Cannabis legalization will create more than 60,000 new jobs, spurring $3.5 billion in economic activity and generating an estimated $300 million in tax revenue when fully implemented,” the document says.
A separate section describes plans to bolster the state’s hemp industry.
To accomplish that, Cuomo will call together a workgroup “composed of hemp growers, researchers, producers, processors, manufacturers, and trade associations to make recommendations for the further development of hemp as a multi-use agricultural commodity and a mature cannabinoid wellness market.”
“The hemp workgroup will explore ways to provide more opportunities for New York growers and manufacturers and work to help facilitate the development of safe New York products that will meet the needs of informed consumers,” the plan says. The group’s recommendations could build upon regulations for hemp and CBD that were developed last year.
But for many advocates, it’s recreational legalization that has the spotlight this session. And to that end, New York lawmakers have made comments in recent months that indicate they feel the reform is inevitable, despite differing opinions on the specifics.
The top Republican in the New York Assembly said last month that he expects the legislature to legalize cannabis this coming session.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said in November that she also anticipates that the reform will advance next year, though she noted that lawmakers will still have to decide on how tax revenue from marijuana sales is distributed.
Cuomo also said that month that the “pressure will be on” to legalize cannabis in the state and lawmakers will approve it “this year” to boost the economy amid the health crisis.
The push to legalize in New York could also be bolstered by the fact that voters in neighboring New Jersey approved a legalization referendum in November.
Legislators prefiled a bill to legalize cannabis in New York earlier this month. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 other lawmakers, is identical to a version she filed last year that did not advance.
Separately, several other bills that focus on medical marijuana were recently prefiled in New York, and they touch on a wide range of topics—from tenants’ rights for medical cannabis patients to health insurance coverage for marijuana products.