Maryland voters are heading to the polls on Tuesday, with a marijuana legalization referendum on the ballot.
Of the five states voting on major drug policy reform issues during this midterm election, Maryland is 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 will be 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?”
If the measure is approved by voters, it would trigger the implementation of a complementary bill that would 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 it’s up to voters to decide if Maryland will join the growing ranks of states that have ended prohibition and replaced that policy with a system of regulated cannabis commerce.
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.
For his part, Maryland House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), who is also a member of the legislative workgroup, said last 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.”
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.
Under that legislation, 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. 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, North Dakota and South Dakota on Tuesday.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.