Maryland lawmakers get first look at plan for full marijuana legalization

Maryland lawmakers on Monday began delving into the details of how to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, should voters support it on the ballot this fall.

Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates are advancing a plan to put the issue to voters in a referendum, which would trigger a series of changes in criminal law and automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions. And then lawmakers would work out details of who would get licenses for growing and selling the drug, how much it would be taxed and how the money would be used. They’d also study the health effects of broad use of marijuana.

“Marylanders deserve to have their voice heard on the question of cannabis legalization,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and lead sponsor of marijuana legalization legislation.

Clippinger and other top Democrats worked at the behest of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones to develop a legalization plan centered around a voter referendum this fall. Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, said they’re charting the “best, most equitable path forward.”

There’s long been a growing interest in legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Maryland, which already has a medical cannabis program. Polls have shown ample support for legalization, including 60% in a Goucher College Poll last fall, up from 50% support in 2014.

The Democratic proposal has two parts: One bill that would put the broad question of legalization on the ballot and a second bill spelling out the details of what would happen if the referendum passes.

Under current law, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana — less than half an ounce — is a civil violation that carries a possible fine of up to $100 for a first offense. Possession of more than 10 grams is a criminal offense.

Under the proposal, passage of the referendum would trigger changes in criminal law. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, possessing up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana would be a civil violation punishable by up to a $100 fine. On July 1, 2023, that would transition to only being a civil violation for those younger than 21.

Having between 1.5 and 2.5 ounces of marijuana would be a civil violation punishable by up to a $250 fine, starting Jan. 1, 2023.

And possession of more than 2.5 ounces would be a misdemeanor criminal offense with penalties of up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000, also starting Jan. 1, 2023.

Lawmakers still need to work out what amount of oils, edibles and other marijuana products would trigger a civil or criminal violation.

Anyone with prior convictions for marijuana possession would have their records expunged from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website and the state’s criminal records database. Those currently in jail or prison could apply to the court to have their sentence reduced to the time already served.

Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat who has long worked on marijuana issues, said even as Maryland has gradually decriminalized marijuana possession, thousands of people still are arrested and convicted over the years, “and that is disproportionately Black Marylanders and other people of color, even though we know use rates between white and Black Marylanders are the same.”

In 2020, there were 1,072 arrests in Maryland for marijuana possession, including 59% people who are Black, 39% white and 2% Asian, according to a nonpartisan analysis. Black Marylanders are twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to their share of the state’s population.

The legislation would require the state to conduct a review called a “disparity study,” which would evaluate whether there are any barriers that certain groups face in the burgeoning marijuana industry. The findings of the disparity study would guide lawmakers in 2023 as they set rules for licensing marijuana businesses, and would be the basis of any potential provisions aimed at boosting participation from small-, women- and minority-owned businesses.

Lawmakers will aim to avoid problems they encountered setting up the state’s medical cannabis program, in which the first round of licenses for growing companies and dispensaries all went to white-owned companies. The state passed a law to create more licenses to give minority-owned and women-owned companies a chance to participate.

Lawmakers also will figure out how to tax marijuana products to raise money for the state, but not so high that it deters people from buying legally-regulated weed.

“It is important that we get the structure of this industry right,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat focused on the tax issues. “It is more important that we get it done right than we get it done quickly.”

The legislation still has a long way to go before landing on voters’ ballots.

The House Judiciary Committee spent more than four hours Monday discussing the bill and hearing public testimony. Some lawmakers pointed out details the bills don’t cover, including whether paraphernalia used with marijuana should be further decriminalized and whether to allow people to grow their own marijuana plants.

And while there’s growing support for legalizing marijuana, it’s not universal.

Del. Brenda Thiam, who is Black, said she has “severe heartburn” and feels like Black Marylanders are being used as a pawn to push drug legalization. She questioned whether Black Marylanders would really be able to make money from the expanded marijuana industry.

“It just concerns me, in a way, that we’re being used as a scapegoat to drive these very controversial conversations that surround cannabis,” said Thiam, a Republican from Washington County.