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Maryland Senators Delay Vote On Marijuana Legalization Ballot Bill In Committee After Passing Complementary Measure



Maryland senators on Wednesday took up a House-passed bill to put marijuana legalization on the state’s November ballot—but the committee couldn’t reach a consensus and decided to delay a vote so members can sort out their concerns.

The inaction in the Senate Finance Committee comes a day after members amended and passed a complementary bill to set up rules for the program if voters ultimately approve the reform. But those rules would be rendered redundant if lawmakers fail to pass the ballot bill.

Tuesday’s hearing involved complex legislating, as the panel had three bills on the agenda: Two that recently cleared the House and a separate Senate measure that would have created more specific regulations for an adult-use market pending voter approval of a legalization referendum.

Members did not vote on HB 1, the ballot question bill, at Tuesday’s meeting; rather, they focused on revising the regulations legislation, SB 833, from Sen. Brian Feldman (D). The panel effectively replaced the original language of the Senate bill with much of HB 837, which is much more limited in scope and primarily concerns penalties and expungements issues. The Senate legislation was also amended to incorporate provisions of other cannabis bills that have been introduced this session.

Then, facing an end-of-week deadline requiring lawmakers to pass bills through both chambers in order to maintain their ability to override a veto from the governor, the newly revised text of the Senate bill was inserted into HB 837. The committee passed that bill in amended form on Tuesday but left the ballot-specific legislation alone. It was expected to get a vote on Wednesday, but that didn’t happen, either.

HB 1 was revised ahead of Wednesday’s hearing to specify on the proposed ballot question that legalization would take effect on July 1, 2023. But certain members raised procedural questions about whether the legislature could insteadput a legalization measure on the ballot without enacting a constitutional amendment and ultimately decided to delay the vote again so that they can further study the issue.

“We don’t really have an answer as to whether we ought to be more specific about what [the ballot initiative] does,” one member said. “And we we don’t really have an answer…as to what would happen if there was a shift at the federal level” to enforce prohibition in state-legal markets.

There was discussion of consulting with the state attorney general about the legal authority of lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, with hopes of getting an answer by Thursday.

Both HB 1 and HB 837 are sponsored by Del. Luke Clippinger (D).

Some senators have expressed concerns over Clippinger’s bifurcated approach to the reform, preferring to tackle comprehensive regulations for the would-be recreational market before the issue went to voters. But now the legislature will be left to create those rules on issues like tax rates and licensing next year following the November election.

The Finance Committee had also taken up the cannabis legislation at an earlier hearing on Monday, with members discussing potential revisions to SB 833.

The legislative process this week has been dizzying, with even some experiences analysts and advocates finding it difficult to follow along.

While much of HB 837 remains intact, it now also incorporates provisions of other marijuana bills such as creating a community reinvestment fund and allowing state tax deductions for certain cannabis-related expenses that marijuana businesses are barred from claiming under current federal tax code.

Assuming voters get the chance to pass legalization at the ballot, and HB 837 is also enacted, 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.

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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 can now petition the courts for expungement three years after serving out their time.

It 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 drawn-out timeline. It was one of several asks that they’ve made to the body, only some of which were incorporated in the proposed revision of SB 833. Activists also wanted lawmakers to include a provision preventing police from using the odor of marijuana alone as the basis for a search, for example, and that wasn’t included.

Another potential problem that advocates have identified is the proposed allocation of equity funds. The version discussed in committee would provide that 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. However, earlier this month, Ferguson signaled 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’s 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.

Prior to being significantly altered, Feldman’s Senate bill would have allowed home cultivation of up to four plants per adult, with a maximum of eight plants per residence. It would have also packaged the constitutional amendment and basic regulatory framework in a single piece of legislation.

The senator’s bill as filed was considered at a Finance Committee hearing earlier this month, along with a separate Senate measure, SB 692, from Sen. Jill Carter (D).

A competing legalization bill on the House side, HB 1342, was introduced last month by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D). It had a brief committee hearing on March 8 but never received a vote.

The Finance Committee did adopt amendments from some of these separate bills during Tuesday’s meeting.

For example, it incorporated language pertaining to tax deductions that were included in SB 333 from Sen. Ronald Young (D). Another amendment was adopted to create a fee for existing medical marijuana dispensaries that become licensed to also sell adult-use cannabis.

Members also agreed to increase the civil penalty for public smoking from $50 to $250 for a first offense and from $150 to $500 for second and subsequent offenses.

More than two dozen advocacy groups—including ACLU of Maryland, NAACP Maryland State Conference, League of Women Voters of Maryland and Maryland Office of the Public Defender—sent a letter to Maryland legislative leaders this month demanding that racial and socioeconomic equity be placed at the forefront of any attempts to legalize marijuana in the state.

A recently released poll of Maryland voters from ACLU found that 66 percent are more likely to support marijuana legalization if it includes relief for past convictions; 65 percent are more likely to back it if the reform stops police from using the odor of cannabis as probable cause for a search and 61 percent are more likely to be on board with legislation if marijuana can’t be used to deny housing or child custody or negatively impact parole or probation status.

Maryland lawmakers are also considering separate legislation this year to decriminalize drug possession and fund access to psychedelics for therapeutic uses.

When it comes to marijuana, 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 desk of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). 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.

A bill to expand the decriminalization possession threshold to an ounce passed the House in 2020 but was never taken up in the Senate.

Also that year, 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.

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