Maryland voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana on Tuesday.
Of the five states voting on major drug policy reform issues during this midterm election, Maryland was generally considered the most likely to pass, with multiple surveys signaling success and other states in the region already having enacted legalization.
The referendum itself is fairly simple. Voters were asked: “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?”
Now that the measure has been approved by voters, it will trigger the implementation of a complementary bill that will set basic regulations for the adult-use cannabis program.
Del. Luke Clippinger (D) sponsored both the bill that placed the referendum on the ballot as well as the implementation legislation, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) let take effect without his signature. The delegate also serves as the chair of a legislative marijuana workgroup that’s been meeting to better understand the issue and explore regulatory options and concerns.
That group—which was formed last year by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D)—has looked at the issue from a wide range of perspectives, exploring topics like regulatory authority, licensing and equity for those who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the drug war.
Now Maryland has joined the growing ranks of states that have ended prohibition and replaced that policy with a system of regulated cannabis commerce.
“State lawmakers have had many years to prepare for this moment,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said. “Now it is incumbent upon lawmakers to move swiftly to adopt rules to oversee a regulated cannabis marketplace in accordance with voters’ demands.”
Olivia Naugle, a senior policy analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, said that with the vote the state “will finally end the failed era of cannabis prohibition and take a more just and equitable approach towards cannabis policy.”
“The passage of Question 4 is a huge victory for criminal justice reform and racial justice in Maryland,” she said. “It will save thousands of Marylanders from arrests and further criminalization for cannabis possession, and it will begin to repair the decades of harm cannabis prohibition has caused, disproportionately in communities of color, by expunging records and reinvesting back into those communities. We look forward to working closely with Maryland lawmakers to ensure that the implementation of legalization is centered around equity.”
Polling has consistently showed that the legalization proposal enjoys strong majority support, and one survey released last month found that a large swath of unlikely voters said they were more motivated to vote after learning that cannabis reform was on the ballot.
To that end, the campaign released an ad days before Election Day that it says was aimed at turning out young voters who are likely to support the referendum.
Another poll released last month similarly found that about three in four Maryland voters support legalizing marijuana, including a majority of Republicans. One week out from the election, a separate survey also showed most GOP voters in favor of the proposal.
Ahead of the election, Maryland activists launched a statewide campaign, led by former NFL player Eugene Monroe, to urge voters to pass the marijuana legalization referendum.
“Tonight voters in Maryland made history by bringing the era of failed marijuana prohibition to an end,” Monroe said on Tuesday. “For decades, the unequally enforced criminalization of cannabis in Maryland inflicted damage upon Black and Brown communities. We must turn the page on that disturbing history by centering Maryland’s legal marijuana market around racial equity. Cannabis legalization will create good-paying jobs, open up doors for small business owners, and generate new tax revenue for our state. Legislators in Maryland have a responsibility to ensure people in historically underserved communities are able to enjoy those benefits.”
For his part, Maryland House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), who is also a member of the legislative workgroup, said last month that he would be voting in favor of legalization at the ballot, but he added that the vote is “the beginning of the conversation.”
The language of the referendum itself is straightforward. Where the more complex aspects of the reform come into play is with the complementary HB 837.
Maryland cannabis legalization is winning 65% to 35% statewide so far & voters "for" marijuana legalization are currently a majority in every county. Congrats 👏 👏 👏 pic.twitter.com/YG76UIWYV4
— David Moon (@DavidMoon2014) November 9, 2022
Under that legislation, the purchase and possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis will be legal for adults. The legislation also will remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 2.5 ounces. Adults 21 and older will 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 will be automatically expunged, and people currently serving time for such offenses will be eligible for resentencing. The legislation makes it so people with convictions for possession with intent to distribute can 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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Even though voters have passed the referendum, the reform won’t take effect immediately. Possession of small amounts of cannabis will 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 won’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. They 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.
Marijuana and psychedelics initiatives are also on the ballot in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri and South Dakota on Tuesday.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.