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Top Maryland Lawmaker Files Marijuana Legalization Bill In Anticipation Of Ballot Referendum Passing



A top Maryland lawmaker wants the state to get prepared to regulate adult-use marijuana if voters approve the reform at the ballot this year.

Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who chairs the Judiciary Committee and leads a cannabis workgroup that’s been studying the issue, already filed a separate measure in December to put legalization on the ballot as a referendum question in accordance with a plan from the House speaker. Now he’s introduced follow-up legislation based on the findings of the study panel that would set up the regulatory infrastructure for such a program if approved by voters.

House Bill 837 would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana and decriminalize possession of amounts greater than that up to 2.5 ounces.

“Marylanders deserve to have their voices heard at the ballot box on the question of legalization, but we cannot move forward without an implementation plan that addresses our immediate priorities,” Clippinger said in a press release. “With this legislation, we will be prepared with comprehensive policy that creates the best, most equitable path to legal recreational cannabis should voters say yes.”

The new proposal would also provide for automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis possession convictions made legal under the measure, and people currently serving time for such offenses would be eligible for resentencing.

The bill would 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.

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“There’s a great deal of talk and need for equity and reparations around passage of this. Meaning that we know that certain communities and individuals have been targeted, mainly Black people in poor neighborhoods have been targeted by the criminalization of marijuana,” Sen. Jill Carter (D), who is also working on legalization legislation, told WMAR-TV. “And we need to make sure that we repair the damage there and that we avail them first of opportunities to now participate in the legal enterprise.”

House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) has been working to get the legislature in a good position to advance reform quickly, announcing the formation of a cannabis workgroup last summer and stating that lawmakers “will pass legislation early” in 2022 to refer the question of legalization to voters.

“I want to thank Chairman Clippinger and every member of the workgroup for their thoughtful approach to the legalization of recreational adult use cannabis,” Jones said on Thursday. “While I feel strongly that the voters should decide this issue, it is the General Assembly that is charged with making sure we have a legally defensible, equity-driven plan in place should they choose legalization.”

For Clippinger’s initial referendum bill, the following question would go on the November ballot if approved by the legislature: “Do you favor the legalization of adult–use cannabis in the State of Maryland?” If approved, it would then be up to lawmakers to develop rules permitting the “use, distribution, possession, regulation, and taxation of cannabis within the state.”

There are at least two components to the referendum measure that are already facing pushback, however.

First, it sets an effective date for the legalization of simple possession about eight months after the election, July 1, 2023. Others states have moved much more quickly, including in New York where low-level possession was immediately legalized following the signing of the reform bill.

Second, it would not require the legislature to allow for home cultivation—a key provision that activists have included in a draft referendum that they hoped lawmakers would model.

Among other components of the new statutory bill, it would require various studies, including into youth impacts, use patters, impaired driving, advertising, labeling, quality control of products and barriers to entering the industry.

Members of the House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup have been discussing a wide range of issues related to business licensing, expungement of prior convictions, criminal and traffic laws related to marijuana, social equity and cannabis tax policy.

In October, the workgroup held a meeting where a top federal drug official gave legislators some advice on legalization in anticipation of the referendum.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D), meanwhile, said in July that the reform is “beyond past due” in the state— but he seemed reluctant to embrace a referendum process and instead wants to pass a bill to end cannabis prohibition sooner than November.

Legalization legislation did start to advance through the legislature during the 2021 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.

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.

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 in July, for example.

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.

Read the full Maryland marijuana legalization bill below:

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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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