With at least five competing cannabis legalization bills in play this session in Maryland, the state’s Senate president weighed in on Friday about how he’d like to see lawmakers proceed during the remaining weeks of the legislative session.
The House of Delegates passed legislation last week that would ask voters whether to legalize cannabis for adults in the state, as well as a separate bill that lays out related criminal justice reforms. On the Senate side, two competing proposals have been introduced and are pending in committee: One that would legalize cannabis directly later this year as well as another voter referendum measure that includes a more comprehensive regulatory scheme than what’s detailed in the House-approved plan.
The Senate Finance considered both Senate proposals earlier this week but did not vote on either bill.
At a press conference Friday, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) took questions from reporters on the competing plans. He said that if lawmakers decide to move forward with a ballot referendum, they owe voters a better idea of what the new system would look like than what his colleagues in the other chamber have provided.
“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Ferguson said of putting the proposed constitutional amendment to voters. “But what’s most important [is] if it does go to voters, they have to know what they’re voting on. They have to have an idea of what the framework would look like.”
“Are we protecting public health?” he asked. “Are we making sure that we are ending the war on drugs, which has been absolutely devastating to communities, and doing it in a way that if an industry moves forward, that there is an equitable opportunity to participate in the marketplace?
“I think we can get there this year,” he continued.
Maryland’s legislative session is scheduled to end on April 11.
Last year Ferguson said he believed lawmakers should skip the ballot step entirely and legalize cannabis by statute. But he indicated at Friday’s press event that he was warming to the idea of a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
Ferguson said he thinks all sides in the debate over what path to take “have demonstrated a commitment to compromising and getting there.”
The Senate “feels comfortable” moving forward with legalization without resorting to a referendum, he explained, “but we’re open to the conversation because we respect the other chamber and the position of the other chamber, and we will see where we land by the end of the session.”
House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D), who formed a legalization working group last summer to study the issue, has said the decision should be left to Marylanders.
Jones said last year that while she has “personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization.”
Both pending Senate bills include far more detail than the House bills, HB 1 and HB 837, about how the state would regulate a new commercial cannabis industry. SB 833, sponsored by Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D) parallels many of the House’s basic provisions but includes much more extensive details on licensing, industry regulation, and other policy matters. The House plan, by contrast, leaves nearly all the wrinkles to be ironed out later, if voters approve the basic policy change.
Under both the House’s and Senate’s proposed constitutional amendments, legalization would not take effect until July 2023. If passed, an amendment would not require Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature. Hogan has not endorsed legalization but has signaled he may be open to considering the idea.
The Senate bill, SB 692, by Sen. Jill Carter (D), is focused primarily on repairing the harms of the drug war. It would legalize cannabis sooner, in July of this year, and establish more permissive limits on possession and home cultivation. It would also guarantee greater legal relief to people with past cannabis-related convictions.
“Sen. Carter’s bill is the only one that lays critical, extensive framework to repair the racial injustices that have been caused by the war on drugs,” Elizabeth Hilliard, an assistant public defender and assistant director of the state’s Office of the Public Defender’s government relations division, said at this week’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, where members discussed both Senate bills.
Feldman, for his part said he didn’t see the two bills “as being in conflict” and thanked Carter for her cooperation. He indicated he was interested in incorporating some provisions of Carter’s bill, such as the vacation of past cannabis convictions, into his own proposal through future amendments.
Feldman last legislative session was a lead author on a different legalization bill that was co-sponsored by Senate President Ferguson. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on that proposal last March, but ultimately no votes were held. That followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal in February.
Ferguson is not a listed sponsor of Feldman’s new proposal.
On the House side, Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who is sponsoring the legalization bills that cleared the chamber, said last week that the House’s passage of the legislation marked “the beginning of an important process where we begin to look again at how we have treated this substance, cannabis.”
A competing legalization bill on the House side, HB 1342, has been introduced by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D) and is scheduled for a committee hearing on Tuesday.
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.