Maryland Legislative Marijuana Workgroup Meets To Prepare For Legalization As Polls Signal Referendum Passage
Maryland lawmakers met on Tuesday to discuss the marijuana legalization referendum on the November ballot and complementary legislation to enact rules for the program, signaling their interest in taking steps to prepare to implement the reform as polls signal voters are poised to prepare it.
The Maryland House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup, which was formed last year by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D), met multiple times to craft legalization legislation before the proposals were enacted—and this is the second time the body has convened since those measures took effect. For this meeting, a handful of senators joined the House group for the first time, as did additional delegates.
For the first part of the latest hearing, members of the workgroup went over both HB 1, the legalization ballot measure that is going before voters, and HB 837, the implementation bill that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) let take effect without his signature.
The legislative group also received a report from the heads of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MCC) and Maryland Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (ATC), which will merge to regulate the marijuana market if voters approve the legalization referendum.
HB 837 stipulates that ATC would be the successor of MCC “in matters concerning the regulation of medical cannabis” if legalization is enacted. Accordingly, the agencies were mandated to submit a report to the legislature about how to most effectively transfer personnel in a way that’s cost-effective, doesn’t result in any reduced pay or loss of benefits for workers and ensures that workers “retain any merit system and retirement status they may have on the date of transfer.”
William Tillburg, executive director of MCC, told lawmakers that combining the agencies will result in “better operations in regulation for alcohol, tobacco and cannabis,” with the goal being to “seamlessly transition and to streamline operations.”
Jeff Kelly, ATC’s executive director, spoke about how Maryland officials recently met with counterparts in Washington State to learn about how they have combined alcohol and cannabis regulations under one agency. There are also plans to meet with Oregon regulators soon.
The report that MCC and ATC prepared recommends consolidating some units together—such as communications, budget and HR staff—while keeping others separate with their own personnel. In particular, the officials said that while they initially thought it would make sense to have enforcement officers cover all of the regulated substances, they changed their minds after meeting with Washington regulators.
During an earlier meeting of the workgroup in June, members discussed licensing and regulatory issues, receiving testimony from experts on the current marijuana policy landscape throughout the country.
Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who sponsored both pieces of cannabis legislation that were enacted during the last session and serves as the lead of the workgroup, said that the panel will hold several more sessions in the near future.
Two of those are already scheduled. On November 1, the group will consider social equity policies in other states. On November 15, they will take testimony on cannabis tax structures in markets across the country.
Recent polling on the Maryland legalization referendum suggests that lawmakers are wise to take preparatory steps to make sure the state is ready to implement regulations for the market.
Not only does the proposal enjoy strong majority support, but the latest survey released last week found that a large swath of unlikely voters said they were more motivated to vote after learning that cannabis reform was on the ballot.
Another poll released earlier this month similarly found that about three in four Maryland voters support legalizing marijuana, including a majority of Republicans. Support is notably higher in these latest polls compared to other recent surveys, including one released last month that found 59 percent of Maryland voters want to legalize cannabis.
Last month, Maryland activists launched a statewide campaign, led by former NFL player Eugene Monroe, to urge voters to pass the marijuana legalization referendum.
For his part, Maryland House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), who is also a member of the workgroup, said this month that he will be voting in favor of legalization at the ballot, but he added that the vote is “the beginning of the conversation.”
Here’s the exact language of Question 4 that’s going before voters:
“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?”
Under the complementary law, 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.
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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.
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. 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.
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.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.