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Maryland Lawmakers Discuss Marijuana Regulations At First Workgroup Hearing Since Legalization Measures Were Enacted



A Maryland legislature marijuana workgroup on Tuesday held its first hearing since a pair of bills were enacted to put cannabis legalization on the November ballot and implement certain initial rules if voters approve the reform.

The Maryland House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup specifically discussed licensing and regulatory issues at the meeting, with members hearing expert testimony on the current marijuana policy landscape to help inform their approach in the future.

Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who sponsored the now-enacted cannabis bills and leads the legislative workgroup formed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D), said that it was important for members to “prioritize equity in our efforts and ensure that we were recognizing and addressing the impact the war on cannabis has inflicted, particularly on brown and Black communities.”

Certain issues such as expungements for prior marijuana convictions were addressed in one of the lawmaker’s bills, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed to take effect without his signature in April.

HB 1, the separate referendum measure, simply places legalization on the ballot and, because it is a constitutional amendment, it wasn’t subject to action by the governor. HB 837, meanwhile, sets basic rules for the adult-use program if voters approve the ballot referendum.

Those provisions mostly concern issues such as penalties and expungement—leaving questions about how the legal cannabis market will be structured and regulated up to future decisions by lawmakers in the 2023 and 2024 sessions.

“This work is important,” Clippinger said on Tuesday, highlighting the need to begin setting the stage for coming legislative actions. “And it’s important work that we have to start right now.”

The Brookings Institution’s John Hudak led a presentation for members, outlining various regulatory models that other states have adopted and answers questions about issues such as tax policy, licensing application scoring, THC limits and regional dynamics.

Members won’t be meeting again until after July 19, Clippinger said at the conclusion of the meeting, adding that the workgroup’s agenda is fairly open-ended, so lawmakers are being invited to recommend regulatory topics for future discussions.

Under the law that would be enacted if voters approve legalization at the ballot, 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 bill was also 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.

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A separate bill, SB 833 from Sen. Brian Feldman (D), as originally introduced would have created specific regulations for the industry—touching on tax policy, licensing and more—that would also have been contingent on voter approval of the referendum question.

But while some senators pushed for the more prescriptive legislation, arguing that voters should know more about what kind of market would emerge before heading to the polls in November, Feldman’s bill was largely replaced with the language of HB 837. As such, lawmakers will return to the question of commercial cannabis regulations next year if voters approve the referendum.

The approved legislation would further establish a Cannabis Business Assistance Fund to support equity initiatives for minority- and women-owned businesses. That fund would go toward incubator and educational programs to promote participation in the industry by people most impacted by criminalization.

To understand the effects of legalization on the state and its residents, the statutory bill would also establish various research initiatives, including studies into youth impacts, use patterns, impaired driving, advertising, labeling, quality control of products and barriers to entering the industry. A baseline study would be conducted before legalization, and updates would be sent to the governor every two months.

If voters approve legalization in November, it 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.

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 now-passed legislation. For example, activists also wanted lawmakers to include a provision preventing police from using the odor of marijuana alone as the basis for a search.

Another potential problem that advocates have identified is the proposed allocation of equity funds. The bill would provide certain funding for jurisdictions with the most cannabis arrests; and while black people are more likely to face criminalization over cannabis on average, some of the counties in Maryland where marijuana arrests have been most common are mostly white, potentially undermining the intent of the reform provision.

As noted, certain senators, including Senate President Bill Ferguson (D), have expressed skepticism about punting the creation of regulations for the marijuana market until next year. However, Ferguson ended up signaling openness to the referendum idea—but stressed that voters deserve to know more details of what a legal cannabis market would look like than is provided in the House bills.

That was a notable shift considering that the top senator said last year that he favored legalizing cannabis through the legislature rather than waiting to ask voters on November’s ballot.

Feldman, meanwhile, has expressed disappointment that the House has continued to move ahead with its workgroup considerations of marijuana regulations, signaling that he’s prefer a more bicameral approach to setting up the rules for the industry.

“I’m a little disappointed to hear that the House is now moving forward yet again with their own House work group,” he said following Clippinger’s announcement about the Tuesday meeting. “I would have thought it might make some sense to get together, House and Senate, during the interim.”

Another legalization bill filed by Sen. Jill Carter (D) was considered in committee in February, but did not advance.

Meanwhile, a separate competing legalization bill on the House side, HB 1342, was introduced in February by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D). It had a brief committee hearing in March but never received a vote.

Legalization began to advance through Maryland’s legislature last session, but no votes were ultimately held. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing last March on a legalization bill sponsored by Feldman and Ferguson. That followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal in February.

Lawmakers then worked to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate proposals in hopes of getting something to the governor’s desk. Hogan has not endorsed legalization but has signaled he may be open to considering the idea.

A poll in October found that the state’s residents are on board with the policy change. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Marylanders now back legalizing cannabis, according to a Goucher College survey. Just 28 percent are opposed.

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.

Meanwhile, Hogan announced last month that he will allow 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.

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Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.

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