The leader of the Maryland Senate on Monday said marijuana legalization is “beyond past due” in the state, but he seemed reluctant to embrace a 2022 voter referendum on the issue that the House speaker proposed last week. Instead, he wants to pass a bill to end cannabis prohibition sooner than next November.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) was asked about the ballot proposal from House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) during an interview with WBAL NewsRadio. He indicated that the legislature should expediently tackle the reform, rather than wait to have voters decide on the issue.
“An overwhelming majority of folks believe that our policy around marijuana has been fatally flawed,” he said. “This is an issue that I thought we needed [to[ reform for a very long time. I think it’s beyond past due.”
“What I’m hoping for this year is that we can put forward a real framework,” Ferguson, who cosponsored a legalization bill this session, said. “Look, there are very real concerns, be it around drugged driving or access to children. All of those things are absolutely essential and so that’s why it’s the responsibility of the General Assembly to put forward a framework that takes care of all of those issues and is thoughtful in the way that we approach adult use.”
But because of the lack of action in the legislature so far and the need to address criminal justice disparities in cannabis criminalization, House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) said last week that that “leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization.”
Jones has also appointed a 10-member working group to study a range of issues related to legalizing and regulating cannabis.
But as far as the Senate leader is concerned, the groundwork has been established and reform should be enacted expeditiously. He pointed to an earlier working group on legalization that he co-chaired in 2019 that “identified the key decision points and models for legalization in Maryland.”
“The Senate continues to be ready to move a fair, just, and equitable program forward, and we intend to do so during the 2022 session,” Ferguson said.
The Senate leader seemed less bullish on the referendum proposal and signaled that he would prefer to have the legislature tackle the issue to ensure that it’s adequately implemented.
“I’m hopeful we’ll get that done this year,” he said of the coming session. “We’ll see about this whole ballot issue. I think this is something that the General Assembly should lead on.”
Legalization legislation did start to advance through the legislature this session, but no votes were ultimately held.
The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing in March on a legalization bill sponsored by Ferguson, the majority leader and key committee chairs. That followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal in February.
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“Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational cannabis for adult-use. Maryland must do the same and a large majority of Marylanders in both political parties support an equitable framework that immediately addresses the injustices in our current criminal justice system,” Ferguson said last week in response to the speaker’s proposal.
Meanwhile, Del. Jazz Lewis (D), who sponsored the legalization bill in his chamber this year, praised the speaker’s move to advance the issue and added that “legalization must be grounded in equity and restorative justice.”
Lawmakers had worked to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate proposals in the hopes of getting something to the desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has not endorsed legalization but has signaled he may be open to considering the idea.
The working group that the speaker convened—which includes House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R), Legislative Black Caucus Chair Darryl Barnes (D) and other top lawmakers—will study a wide range of cannabis policy issues before the referendum bill is formally introduced.
The panel will consider licensing rules, tax structures, social equity and expanded access to substance misuse treatment.
As Maryland lawmakers considered the two marijuana legalization bills this past session, a poll 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.
Pressure to enact the reform is also building regionally. Marijuana legalization took effect in Virginia at the beginning of this month, for example.
In Maryland, Democratic gubernatorial candidates—former state Attorney General Doug Gansler and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King—have also voiced support for legalization in recent weeks.
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, the governor 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.
In 2017, Hogan 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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.