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Maryland task force begins work on potential legalization of marijuana

Should marijuana be legalized in Maryland? How should it be taxed? What impact would legalization have on crime rates and residents’ health?

A Maryland General Assembly task force on Tuesday began its work on studying possible legalization of cannabis for adult use — a signal the legislature is getting serious about moving forward with legislation next year.

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“I don’t think there’s a foregone conclusion here,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who is co-chair of the bipartisan task force. “We really need to dig into: What have other states learned? What is different about Maryland?”

At the work group’s first meeting in Annapolis, Ferguson said the task force would finish its work “potentially” by the end of the year, but it was unclear what the members would recommend.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and co-chair of the task force, said the body will form subcommittees to study the impact of marijuana legalization on criminal justice and public health, while considering best approaches to taxation, licensing and ensuring participation by small, woman-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and late House Speaker Michael Busch formed the work group in February to make recommendations at the end of December that could be used to develop bills for the 2020 legislative session.

Lawmakers are looking for additional revenue streams — including taxing marijuana and legalizing sports betting — to help fund the proposals from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. The so-called Kirwan commission, nicknamed after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, has recommended ambitious proposals to boost schools that total about $3.8 billion annually.

On Tuesday, the Marijuana Legalization Workgroup heard testimony from Mathew Swinburne, an associate director with the Network for Public Health Law, about how state legalization efforts have come into conflict with federal prohibitions.

Colorado and Washington became the first states in the country to legalize marijuana for adult use in 2012. Now, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug — even though it remains illegal under federal law.

Marijuana was among the largest cash crops in America — used for textiles, paper, oil, rope and medicine — until the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act imposed registration and reporting requirements as well as taxes on the industry, Swinburne testified.

In 1951, amid concern that marijuana was a gateway to heroin and other more dangerous drugs, the Boggs Act lumped marijuana in with narcotics and made possession punishable by a minimum of two years in prison. Subsequent laws increased criminal penalties, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana as having no acceptable medical use and high potential for abuse.

Sen. Andrew A. Serafini, a Republican from Washington County, questioned whether banking won’t prove difficult for marijuana companies since their product is illegal under federal law.

“There’s a lot of money flowing right now and many banks aren’t going to deal with this,” Serafini said.

But Sen. Brian J. Feldman, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he knew of banks in the state that are “happily accepting cannabis deposits.”

The work group also heard from William C. Tilburg, the director of policy and government affairs for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, who said medical marijuana is expanding quickly in the state.

The state’s medical marijuana industry has 15 growers, 18 processors and 77 dispensaries, he said.

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Retail sales have grown from $2.6 million in January in 2018 to $19.5 million in May. In 2018, medical cannabis sales totaled $109 million for the year.

Task force member Del. Nick J. Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, said he wants to make sure a diverse group of business owners would benefit from the legalization of marijuana.

Nationally, African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as white people, despite surveys showing similar usage rates among the races. But business owners benefiting from the new marijuana industry are mainly white, Tilburg testified.

Maryland has just one African-American grower, he said.

“Less than 1 percent of total businesses in the country are African American owned,” Tilburg testified.

Mosby suggested eliminating caps on how many license-holders could sell marijuana in Maryland.

“Is there an advantage to the residents of Maryland to have an arbitrarily limited cap on the number of licenses, particularly when you look at the fact that this industry is doing so well — $86 million in six months to a handful of folks?”

Ragina C. Ali, manager of Public and Government Affairs for the Maryland Office of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the driver advocacy group is watching the task force’s work closely.

Ali said the organization is “concerned” about the lack of a reliable method to determine whether a person is high while driving a vehicle the way there is for determining a driver’s level of alcohol intoxication.

Members of the committee include Democratic delegates Jay Walker, Vanessa Atterbeary, Eric Bromwell, David Moon and Sandy Rosenberg; Republican delegates Nic Kipke and Kathy Szeliga; Democratic senators Jill P. Carter, Melony Griffith, Guy Guzzone, Douglas J.J. Peters and Jeff Waldstreicher, and Republican senators Stephen Hershey and Chris West.

The discussions in Annapolis include whether legislators should seek to directly legalize recreational marijuana use by passing a bill or take the route of legislation that would set up a referendum for voters on the 2020 ballot.

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