A Maryland House committee began discussion this week of a pair of bills to legalize and regulate cannabis in the state—one that would ask voters whether legalize cannabis use and possession by adults 21 and older, and another that would begin the work of crafting rules for the would-be legal industry.

Both measures are from Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who chairs Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee, which gave the bills an initial hearing on Monday. Last year, Clippinger headed a House working group launched last summer by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) to study cannabis legalization in anticipation of the November 2022 ballot question.

“I think it’s time for us to start this work now,” Clippinger said at Monday’s hearing. “I think that having this referendum and a clear statement from [voters of] the state of Maryland as to what they want to do will be helpful to the next governor in setting up that new structure.”

The committee did not vote on the bills, instead hearing spending several hours discussing their provisions and hearing testimony from the public.

The bills considered by the House Judiciary Committee are among at least five cannabis legalization measures introduced so far this session by lawmakers in Maryland, where a survey last October found that the policy reform was more popular than President Joe Biden (D). Two other legalization bills have been introduced in the Senate, and a competing House measure was filed earlier this month.

Clippinger’s two proposals are relatively straightforward. The first, 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.”

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The second measure, HB 837, is designed to get started on that work. 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. 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 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.

“I think it’s fair to say, a lot of these items you see here, these are some of the clearer consensus items that we were able to settle on,” Del. David Moon (D), who also served on last year’s House working group, told committee members at Monday’s hearing. “It’s obviously a starting point, but it’s a long time coming.”

House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D) noted that some of the most pressing and consequential issues around legalization, including business licensing and taxation, aren’t fully spelled out in the bill. It’s not clear, for example, whether local governments would be able establish their own taxes on cannabis or whether companies could deduct business expenses on their state taxes.

“It’s important that we get the structure of this industry right,” Luedtke said. “It’s more important that we get it done right than we get it done quickly.”

Clippinger described the path toward legalization in Maryland as “a step-by-step process” and said a more substantial framework on licensing and other issues could be in place by the end of the 2023 legislative session. He added that further amendments could deal with pending issues, such as setting possession limits on products such as concentrates.

To study the effects of legalization on the state and its residents, the new statutory bill would also establish various studies, including 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.

Even before lawmakers began discussion of Clippinger’s bills, legalization advocates had identified two major complaints with the proposal.

First, it would not legalize simple possession until July 1, 2023, about eight months after the election. Others states have moved much more quickly, such as New York, where low-level possession was legalized immediately after the governor’s signing of the reform bill.

Maryland’s bill would make possession of small amounts of cannabis a civil offense on January 1, 2023, punishable by a $250 fine, with legalization not kicking in for another six months.

Second, the measure 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 follow.

“Adults would not be able to legally possess cannabis until July of 2023, which will be eight months after voters would approve it,” Olivia Naugle, senior policy analyst for the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), said during Monday’s hearings. “This delay would mean thousands of Marylanders, disproportionately Black Marylanders, would continue to be subjected to police interactions and citations.”

Naugle, who said MPP supports the bill with amendments, pointed out that while neighboring Virginia and Washington, D.C. allow home cannabis cultivation, Clippinger’s plan not only prohibits it but “goes even further by penalizing the practice with up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.”

Clippinger, asked about home cultivation during Monday’s hearing, said it was among the regulatory issues that “would be better addressed next year” but indicated that he felt it could interfere with a broader commercial licensing scheme.

Speaking in support of Clippinger’s bills were a number of community and legal justice advocates, as well as a member of Congress from the state.

“The time has come to legalize cannabis in Maryland for adult use,” said Rep. Anthony C. Brown (D), calling the policy change an issue of racial equity and economic opportunity. “Maryland, as a progressive, forward-thinking state needs to join the 18 other states that have legalized cannabis, to lead by example and be a model for the rest of the country.”

The state’s Medical Cannabis Commission also supports Clippinger’s proposals, although a representative asked that the bill be amended to further study and regulate psychoactive components in cannabis beyond delta-9 THC.

Other supporters urged amendments to strengthen the bill’s commitments to equity, allow social sharing of cannabis between adults and prevent law enforcement from using the smell of marijuana as probable cause, among other changes.

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.

In contrast to the House plan, 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 two-part 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.

Another Senate bill in play this session, SB 692, from Sen. Jill P. 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 last week by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D). While the text of that bill had not yet been posted on the state’s legislative website as of Monday morning, a synopsis of the proposal says it would legalize possession and use “of a certain amount of cannabis by a person of at least a certain age,” tax and regulate sales and include expungement of past cannabis-related criminal charges.

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.

Pressure to enact the reform is also building regionally. Marijuana legalization took effect in Virginia in July, for example, and a legislative committee in nearby Delaware advanced a legalization bill last month. Lawmakers in neighboring Washington, D.C. are also taking steps to prepare to legalize adult-use cannabis sales as soon as a congressional rider blocking such a move expires.

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.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer

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