When Maryland Del. Robbyn Lewis heard that Virginia had legalized recreational cannabis, she couldn’t help but think to herself: “How dare they get ahead of us on anything?”
It was difficult for her to see the once-red neighboring state, where Democrats now control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature, advance past Maryland on a progressive issue, largely because of her competitive spirit, Lewis said.
“I’m very proud of them as an American,” the Baltimore City Democrat joked. “But as a Marylander? How dare they?”
Virginia lawmakers voted last week to hasten the legalization timeline in the state, meaning possession of up to an ounce of cannabis would be legal for those 21 and over as of July 1. Dispensaries, though, won’t be allowed to open for recreational sales until 2024.
Maryland lawmakers once said 2021 was the year for legalizing weed, but now they say the pandemic, and other legislative priorities for the 90-day session, disrupted those plans.
The fact that possessing up to 10 grams of weed is already a civil — rather than criminal — offense in Maryland could be contributing to a lack of urgency for legalization, but that doesn’t tell the full story, said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland criminologist who has studied the issue.
“Maryland is by all standards a very liberal jurisdiction, and on the cannabis question it’s been way behind,” Reuter said. “There is this sort of curious question: Why?”
Perhaps it’s because the racial disparity in enforcement is a bit smaller in Maryland than other states, Reuter said. A 2020 American Civil Liberties Union study found that, nationally, Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possessing cannabis. That’s compared with 1.8 times in Maryland, as determined by a recent legislative analysis.
Del. Jazz Lewis, who proposed a legalization bill this session, says he’s optimistic about passage in 2022.
“I think next year is the year. I know everyone keeps saying that. But this time, I think, is different,” said the Prince George’s County Democrat. “We’re soon to be surrounded.”
In Washington, D.C., for instance, possessing up to 2 ounces of cannabis is legal if you’re at least 21 years old, but selling it remains illegal.
With the General Assembly session having ended at midnight Monday, Maryland’s existing medical cannabis retailers are turning their eyes to 2022, and bracing for a change that promises to upend their business.
For one thing, legalization will bring an influx of new license-holders into Maryland’s industry to meet the demand of an exponentially expanded customer base. That means more competition for the dispensaries, growers and processors already online. And it’s up to lawmakers to determine how the newcomers will be regulated, alongside the old hands.
Morey Zuskin, owner of Evermore Cannabis Company, which operates a dispensary called The Living Room in Pikesville, said he’s already preparing for what feels like the inevitable. When weed becomes legal for all adults in Maryland, he plans to set aside a special place in the dispensary for the existing patients who use cannabis to treat ailments from chronic pain to seizures.
“I think a lot of times, the medical portion of the program can get lost, and we don’t want to see that. We want to make sure that patients still get the medicine that they need, as opposed to just recreational cannabis,” Zuskin said.
Meanwhile, Evermore is preparing an edibles kitchen, where they’d make cannabis-infused foods for patients, Zuskin said, thanks to a rule change from Maryland’s Medical Cannabis Commission, which initially didn’t allow the practice.
It’s been a long, sometimes fraught, road since medical cannabis was legalized in Maryland, Zuskin said, so it’s not necessarily surprising that recreational legalization has languished for another year.
“We know how long it’s taken to get this program off the ground,” Zuskin said. “Of course, we would have liked to be seeing this sooner, but really doing it the right way, I think, is the most important part. So, I really didn’t expect it this session. Hopefully next session, everything will be lined up.”
Existing medical cannabis businesses have previously resisted the addition of new license-holders to the market. For instance, in 2019, a Timonium-based dispensary sued the state, arguing it couldn’t award more licenses until it completed a supply-and-demand analysis. But it withdrew its case after pushback since the added licenses were meant to rectify a lack of diversity in the industry.
Luke Jones, director of Maryland NORML, a group pushing for legalizations, worries that hesitancy from current businesses could be slowing the process in Maryland.
“Our General Assembly operates in a limited number of calendared legislative days,” Jones said. “They can’t address all issues, so they have to prioritize the work that they do. The prioritization, unfortunately, is driven by paid lobbyists.”
There are still plenty of kinks to iron out before next session, lawmakers say.
There are the familiar concerns to contend with: including worries about how cannabis affects the health of young users, and how legalizing the drug could increase the number of people driving under the influence. But there are additional technical intricacies to address — how many licenses to give out and what kinds, how to tax sales, and where the existing Medical Cannabis Commission will fit in the puzzle.
“This is not going to be automatic in Maryland, and we really did have to flush out all the concerns,” said Sen. Brian Feldman, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County and proposed a legalization bill similar to Lewis’.
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Regulating the drug recreationally may fall to the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, which could envelop the existing Medical Cannabis Commission, Feldman said.
“We don’t want to lose that institutional knowledge,” he said.
There’s also the question of how to rectify years of discrimination in the enforcement of cannabis laws, and how to ensure new licenses are distributed equitably. Lawsuits slowed the rollout for medical cannabis in Maryland, for instance, after none of the first 15 growers selected were minority-owned. After that, the commission awarded a significant number of points to diverse candidates during the license application process.
The bills proposed this year would provide for the automatic expungement of court and police records tied to certain cannabis possession charges, without the requirement that affected Marylanders file a petition.
Lewis said this process has proved complex, because of the myriad ways these records are stored, and that will be an issue studied in preparation for next session. Lewis said he also envisions a framework in which people with charges or convictions tied to possession with the intent to distribute cannabis could apply for expungement. People incarcerated for possessing or cultivating a “personal use” amount of cannabis — not exceeding 2 ounces — would be able to apply for release.
The bill also provides for some of the funds raised by the sale and regulation of cannabis for recreational use to go toward Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities, in addition to education programs in areas affected by over-policing. Some, too, would go toward helping people from underrepresented groups obtain the capital necessary to start a cannabis business.
“We had a really good framework on racial equity and making sure the communities that have been most harmed benefited the most,” Lewis said. ”We just didn’t have enough runway this legislative session.”