The Maryland House of Delegates on Friday passed bills to put marijuana legalization on the state’s 2022 ballot and set initial rules if voters approve the reform in November.
The chamber had debated the proposals, rejected several GOP-led amendments and advanced them to third reading on Wednesday. Now lawmakers have given final passage to the referendum and implementation measures—in votes of 96-34 and 92-37, respectfully—sending them to the Senate.
“We are at the beginning of an important process where we begin to look again at how we have treated this substance, cannabis,” Del. Luke Clippinger (D), sponsor of both bills, said ahead of the floor vote.
He said lawmakers must reconsider the “thousands of people we have incarcerated” over marijuana, arguing that “those thousands of incarcerations have not made us safer.”
Clippinger is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which reported the bills out favorably last week. He also led a marijuana workgroup that House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) formed last summer to study the issue.
The first of the chairman’s proposals, HB 1, would ask voters to approve an amendment to the state’s constitution to legalize cannabis use and possession by adults at least 21 years old. It would further direct lawmakers to set laws to “provide for the use, distribution, regulation, and taxation of cannabis within the state.”
After passing HB 1 (cannabis referendum), the debate for final passage of HB 837 (cannabis reform) now begins on the floor of the House of Delegates. Join us: https://t.co/XZZ94rp9vK https://t.co/oZrM9GJucF
— Luke Clippinger (@LukeClippinger) February 25, 2022
Clippinger’s second measure, HB 837, is designed to set up initial rules for a legal marijuana market if voters approve the policy change.
It specifies that the purchase and possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis would be legal for adults, and it 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 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.
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“Marylanders have fought year after year for equitable cannabis legalization, and this milestone is an indication that the era of prohibition is finally coming to an end,” Olivia Naugle, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “We applaud House Speaker Adrienne Jones for prioritizing efforts to legalize cannabis this year. With legislative leaders taking action on this issue, Maryland is well positioned to pass a cannabis legalization law in 2022.”
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.
House Bill 1, putting a question on the ballot this fall legalizing recreational cannabis in Maryland, has passed the House overwhelmingly!
— Delegate Eric Luedtke (@EricLuedtke) February 25, 2022
Clippinger and other lawmakers have indicated that they want to tackle comprehensive regulations for an adult-use marijuana market next year after voters weigh in on the issue at the ballot.
During Wednesday’s initial floor consideration of the bills on second reading, the House minority leader and other GOP members attempted to attach several amendments to the proposals to make them more restrictive. All amendments—including one that would have allowed local governments to opt out of legalization and continue to criminalize people over cannabis—were soundly defeated.
Meanwhile, there are at least three other competing legalization bills that have been filed in the state legislature this session.
On the Senate side, meanwhile, Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D) earlier this month introduced SB 833, which would also ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis for adults. That measure, like Clippinger’s plan, would go to voters in November and take effect in July 2023.
— MD House Democrats (@mdhousedems) February 25, 2022
Feldman’s 83-page bill would allow home cultivation of up to four plants per adult, with a maximum of eight plants per residence. It would also package the constitutional amendment and basic regulatory framework in a single piece of legislation, unlike Clippinger’s bifurcated package.
Feldman was a lead author on a separate legalization measure last year that was co-sponsored by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D).
Ferguson, for his part, said last year that he favored legalizing cannabis through the legislature rather than waiting to ask voters on November’s ballot.
With support from my colleagues, HB 1 (cannabis referendum) and HB 837 (cannabis reform) have passed out of the House of Delegates!
I look forward to working with the Senate to move these bills forward and deliver on our commitment to legalize cannabis in this state. pic.twitter.com/NU4U23fy8r
— Luke Clippinger (@LukeClippinger) February 25, 2022
Another Senate bill in play this session, SB 692, from Sen. Jill Carter (D), would set higher possession amounts of up to four ounces of marijuana and would allow home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. Possession in excess of those limits would carry no more than a $150 fine, and past criminal records would be cleared for certain cannabis-related charges.
Both Senate bills are set to be discussed March 3 in the Senate Finance Committee.
A competing legalization bill on the House side, HB 1342, was introduced earlier this month by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D). It has a hearing on March 8.
Cannabis legalization without an equitable framework is not progressive policy.
Cannabis legalization without reparations for communities harmed by the intentional drug war is not progressive policy.
Center communities most impacted.
HB 837 falls short of that & I voted NO ❌
— Del. Gabriel Acevero (@GabrielAcevero) February 25, 2022
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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.