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People wait in line during the first day of recreational marijuana sales at GreenStone Provisions medical marijuana shop in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. the first day for legal recreational marijuana sales in Michigan.
People wait in line during the first day of recreational marijuana sales at GreenStone Provisions medical marijuana shop in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. the first day for legal recreational marijuana sales in Michigan. (Mary Lewandowski / MLive/TNS)

While Maryland lawmakers have signaled they likely won’t legalize the recreational use of marijuana in the 2020 legislative session as some had hoped, it’s only a matter of time before they eventually do. A dozen other states already have, roughly two dozen — including Maryland — have decriminalized small amounts of the drug, and three dozen states (again, including Maryland) and U.S. territories have paved the way through comprehensive public medical cannabis programs.

Meanwhile, a February poll conducted by Goucher College shows most Marylanders — 57% — approve of the leisure use of pot (37% oppose it). And many residents and officials alike are counting on the eventual taxation of it to help pay for costly education reform. (Colorado has taken in more than $1 billion in state revenue since it began commercial sale of legalized marijuana in 2014.)

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So, yes, legalization is coming. And it’s critical we get it right — better than we got medical marijuana, which was mired in controversy over the geographic, racial and ethnic diversity of licensees. After all, recreational marijuana will undoubtedly affect a larger portion of the population.

As the bi-partisan workgroup of state legislators studying legalization has noted: It’s complicated.

How will it be regulated and licensed? How will tax revenue be allocated? How will Maryland ensure equitable business opportunities? How will the federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I illegal substance affect state legalization, and a marijuana business’ banking? What will happen to prior criminal convictions for possession? How will we protect public health and safety? What impact would legalization have on the black market of marijuana? And so on.

Already, cannabis is the most popular illicit drug in the country, with 90% of users turning to it for recreation, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. But research on its short and long-term health effects is lacking, and states that have legalized recreational use report that calls to poison control centers are up, along with impaired driving incidents involving the drug.

The stakes are therefore high, and Maryland legislators should take the time they need to work out the issues.

But there are some steps forward regarding marijuana policy we should take during this coming session, including expanding the amount a person can possess without facing criminal charges. Under current Maryland law, a person found with more than 10 grams of marijuana is committing a crime, while in Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, you can possess up to 100 grams without facing penalties. The city changed its rules in July, because of a disparity in arrests, which disproportionately targeted black citizens, even though both blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rates. In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby this year stopped prosecuting marijuana possession cases for much the same reason.

Requirements for expungement of previous possession convictions should also be loosened. Currently, people must wait four years before applying to have a marijuana possession or paraphernalia conviction expunged. Prior cases involving less than 10 grams should be automatically expunged, and those involving larger amounts should become eligible within a year. Four years is too long to have employment options limited by such a record, particularly given current attitudes toward the drug.

In 2012, there was no good reason for Maryland to be on the forefront of legalization in the country. But attitudes have changed since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational use that year. We can’t change that reality, but we can, and should, prepare for it.

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