A Maryland House working group tasked with studying marijuana and preparing a legalization referendum that the speaker wants to put on next year’s ballot met for the first time on Wednesday, with members discussing the history of reform throughout the country.
The 10-member group, which was appointed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) earlier this year, will be looking at the issue from a variety of perspectives as lawmakers continue to pursue reform in the Free State.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the panel talked about their plans to work over the next year crafting legislation to implement a regulated marijuana market so it will be ready for the 2023 session if voters approve the legalization referendum next November.
Cannabis laws have “had a disparate impact on people of color for far too long with no real impact on public safety,” Rep. Luke Clippinger (D), chair of the workgroup, said, adding that members “will establish the legal framework that’s necessary to fully implement the legalization of marijuana and learn from the mistakes that other states have made before us.”
Other members of the House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup include Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D), Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R), Legislative Black Caucus Chair Darryl Barnes (D) and other top lawmakers.
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“We applaud Speaker Jones’ commitment to referring legalization to voters in 2022. It is also encouraging that the House workgroup will begin meeting well ahead of the 2022 legislative session,” Olivia Naugle, legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “We look forward to seeing what the group comes up with, and will continue to advocate that the legislature replace cannabis prohibition with a just and equitable system of regulation for Marylanders in 2022.”
Clippinger said the panel will tackle issues such as business licensing, expungement of prior convictions, criminal and traffic laws related to marijuana, social equity and cannabis tax policy. Members will be broken out into subcommittees focused on different aspects of legalization, such as public health, taxation, business implications and criminal justice impacts.
Happening now: the first meeting of the House Cannabis Legalization Workgroup. We welcome @JohnJHudak as he provides background on cannabis legalization across the nation. We have a lot of work to do, I’m glad we’re underway.
— Luke Clippinger (@LukeClippinger) September 8, 2021
The speaker formed the working group in conjunction with an announcement that she plans to pass legislation “early” in 2022 to put the question of legalization directly to voters as a referendum question.
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 next November.
The top Senate lawmaker also pointed out that he co-chaired an earlier workgroup on marijuana policy in 2019, and that panel had already “identified the key decision points and models for legalization in Maryland.”
At the first workgroup meeting on Wednesday, members viewed a presentation from John Hudak, a researcher with the Brookings Institution, who talked about the rapid growth of the state-level legalization movement, the various policy considerations that went into those changes and the increased bipartisan support for reform. Among other issues, he also covered the historically disproportionate impact of cannabis enforcement on people of color and efforts to address that harm through equity programs.
Now: House Cannabis Legalization Workgroup. Listening to briefing on national historical background on cannabis legalization. Blacks Marylanders are 2.2 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis offense than White Marylanders. @mdhousedems #working4md pic.twitter.com/OkHf1quNy7
— Del. J. Peña-Melnyk (@JPenaMelnyk) September 8, 2021
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.
Del. Jazz Lewis (D), who sponsored the legalization bill in his chamber this year, praised the speaker’s push to advance the issue and added that “legalization must be grounded in equity and restorative justice.”
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.
In Maryland, Democratic gubernatorial candidates—former state Attorney General Doug Gansler and former U.S. Secretary of Education John King—have also voiced support for legalization in recent weeks.
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 last year to expand the decriminalization possession threshold to an ounce passed the House last year but was never taken up in the Senate.
Also last 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.