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Elections

Maryland voted to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis. Now what?

Marylanders voted 2-to-1 for legalizing recreational cannabis. That was the easy part.

Now, state lawmakers will try to set up a legal market that is safe, equitable and affordable. That’s the hard part.

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When the General Assembly approved establishing a medical cannabis system in 2014, it took three years to write the rules, award licenses and set up farms and processors. The first dispensaries didn’t open until 2017 and officials were criticized for a lack of diversity among licensees.

Lawmakers, industry leaders and social justice advocates are all hoping to avoid a similarly slow — and inequitable — rollout for recreational cannabis.

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Meanwhile, opponents of the drug’s legalization have concerns about impaired driving, youth consumption and unknown public health consequences. There is also disagreement on whether a taxed and regulated recreational cannabis industry would eliminate the illicit market or provide cover to a black market that could undercut prices and supply youth.

While Maryland and Missouri voted Tuesday to legalize recreational cannabis, Arkansas and North and South Dakota, voted against it.

The earliest date under Maryland law that adult-use cannabis could be legally sold is July 1, and some say the only way to meet that date is if the current medical cannabis industry is allowed to participate.

Wendy Bronfein, co-founder Curio, one of the state’s largest medical cannabis companies, said her industry has a proven track record of safe, affordable and accessible products. The growers and processors in Maryland’s $600-million-a-year medical cannabis industry already have the capacity to meet the recreational demand, too, Bronfein said, and she thinks they will start ramping up production now, as it takes roughly four months to grow a cannabis plant.

“From the conversations I’ve had and watching the work groups and things like that, I think the legislature is very much looking to meet that [July 1] deadline,” Bronfein said.

Lawmakers told The Baltimore Sun this spring that they were hesitant to put a firm date on when a recreational industry could be up and running. They said they want to avoid a repeat of the start of the medical cannabis industry, which was dominated by white-owned businesses. Lawmakers have tried since to diversify the industry, while protecting it from consolidation, and those efforts have had mixed results.

Natasha Pratt-Harris, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Morgan State University, said it’s crucial that Maryland creates a diverse and accessible cannabis industry, because Black people were disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of cannabis.

“We look at the disparity in conviction rates for illicit narcotics,” Pratt-Harris said. “We can see that it was a war on Black people. It was definitely a war on impoverished communities. And now the question is: What are we going to do about that war that left people harmed and families destroyed?”

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Pratt-Harris said it was disappointing that it took Maryland so long to legalize cannabis.

Lawmakers and other leaders need to make sure that Black people have access to cannabis business licenses and the capital needed to compete in the market, she said.

“There should be intentionality and honesty about what we actually are seeing right now,” Pratt-Harris said. “[We should] have an honest conversation about why the industry looks a certain way … and how do we remedy that with the history of criminalization?”

The state is currently conducting a racial and gender disparity study on the medical cannabis industry. It is expected to be completed during the upcoming legislative session, and under state law no business licenses for adult-use cannabis can be issued until then.

Justin Tepe, a lawyer at Goodell DeVries who works with cannabis companies, said that disparity study will be the first hurdle in setting up the recreational market. The findings of that study could affect how lawmakers approach licensing, Tepe said.

How many licenses and what types of licenses could have a major effect on the demographics of the recreational cannabis industry — and who gets to participate.

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Tepe pointed out that the legislature already created the Cannabis Business Assistance Fund. It’s unclear how much money lawmakers will allocate to the fund, which is meant to help small, minority- and women-owned businesses enter the adult-use cannabis industry, but Tepe said it signals that lawmakers want a diverse industry.

“That’s important to note,” Tepe said. “There is very clearly an intent by the legislature to open up access to all.”

If lawmakers want a diverse, locally owned recreational cannabis industry, they should look to the hemp and CBD stores, said Nicholas Patrick, the owner of three stores called Embrace CBD Wellness.

The market for hemp-derived products is fast-growing in Maryland. Some, like Delta-8, are psychoactive and that industry is largely unregulated. Patrick helped rally support this year to stop the legislature from banning sales of Delta-8 in Maryland. He said that selling Delta-8 and other cannabinoid products has provided a way into the cannabis space for folks who didn’t have the money or expertise to enter the medical cannabis market.

For those reasons, Patrick believes it’s a more diverse industry and lawmakers should consider creating a path for those stores to enter the adult-use cannabis market.

Patrick was happy to see voters approve cannabis legalization, but he said it would take a “miracle” for lawmakers to set up an adult-use cannabis industry in 2023.

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“There’s too many competing viewpoints,” Patrick said of adult-use cannabis. “If there was enough agreement on how to do this properly, we just would have seen a bill pass [in 2022].”

Nicholas Patrick, who owns three Embrace CBD Wellness stores, talks April 21, 2022, about regulations regarding the cannabis industry and Delta-8.

Lawmakers also have expressed concerns about public health and safety related to recreational cannabis, issues that likely will come up again in 2023.

Tepe said a public health advisory council will be established Jan. 1 and lawmakers are expected to receive a study March 1 that explores topics such as the use of cannabis by different age groups and pregnant women, incidents of impaired driving, cannabis use disorder and much more.

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Reviewing those topics and potentially imposing strict regulations gives some hope to Kevin Sabet, a former White House adviser on drugs for both Republican and Democratic administrations and the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Sabet believes Maryland will come to regret its decision to legalize cannabis, fearing that it will become another version of the tobacco industry, with corporate domination, advertising to children and dangerous health effects.

“The [cannabis] industry is driven by white-collar, white men lobbyists who succeeded in hedge funds and Wall Street,” he said.

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Sabet said the legislature has an opportunity in 2023 to at least make Maryland’s recreational industry as safe as possible. To Sabet, that means limits on potency, advertising and out-of-state businesses entering the market, as well as letting localities decide whether dispensaries and cultivation facilities are allowed in their cities and counties.

“Regardless of what happens tonight,” Sabet said on Tuesday, “there’s much more to be done on the marijuana issue.”

Mike Gimbel, a former addict and longtime opponent of drug use, is more pessimistic.

“Like other states, the people of Maryland will regret the legalization of marijuana when they see more teens, more people at work, more people behind the wheel being under the influence of marijuana thus creating serious problems for all,” said Gimbel, who worked as Baltimore County’s director of substance abuse, in an email to The Sun. “The money raised by legalization of marijuana is not worth the damage it will create.”


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