Last July, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, announced her support for a referendum to legalize cannabis on the 2022 General Election ballot. In tandem, she also established the House Cannabis Referendum Workgroup to consider the most effective and equitable path to implement a legalized cannabis program in Maryland, should Marylanders vote in favor of the ballot question this November. It’s been determined that, in addition to a straightforward referendum question, we need companion legislation that creates a clear and equitable path to legal adult recreational cannabis.
Public sentiment on this issue has shifted over the previous decade. Eighteen states — including Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. — have legalized recreational cannabis. Maryland is on the precipice of becoming the 19th state to end its war on cannabis. Still, in doing so, we have a lot to get right.
As the chair of the House Cannabis Referendum Workgroup, I analyzed various components of cannabis legalization with my colleagues, and together we identified several pillars of a successful legalization program: public health determinants, criminal justice impacts, business implementation and regulation considerations. The workgroup welcomed experts from various backgrounds and issue areas. We received briefings on each topic, reviewed data, compared successes and failures of legalization efforts in other states, and asked questions.
I submitted legislation, House Bill 837, that will serve as a companion bill to House Bill 1, our ballot question for November’s election. Contingent on what voters decide at the ballot box, the companion legislation will be in place to address our immediate implementation priorities. Addressing the overwhelming disparities that have impacted people of color — especially Black and brown Marylanders — will be our top priority.
Fueled by the war on cannabis, our current laws have disproportionately led to the arrest and criminalization of people of color. The companion legislation to House Bill 1 will work to end these disparities within our justice system. With feedback from experts, along with input from my colleagues in the workgroup and in the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, it was determined that Marylanders should be able to possess up to 1.5 ounces of recreational cannabis without penalty. Under the legislation, anyone who possesses more than 1.5 ounces of cannabis and up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis would be subject to a civil offense rather than the current and potentially life-altering criminal misdemeanor. It will also ensure that anyone who was previously found guilty of simple possession would have their record automatically expunged if it was the only charge in the case. Anyone currently held in a state prison or local jail for a cannabis conviction would be resentenced to end their term of incarceration.
Another unifying concern that threads through every community across our state is the impact cannabis use has on public health — particularly on children, young people and individuals with a history of addiction. This legislation will address these concerns head on by implementing a baseline study that will provide data on patterns of use, incidents of impaired driving, prenatal health, hospitalizations, calls to poison control and use disorder. This data will help us craft legislation in future sessions to effectively provide the necessary support to vulnerable communities. In the meantime, we will establish a Cannabis Public Health Advisory Counsel, financed by a Cannabis Public Health Fund, to study and make annual recommendations regarding the youth impacts, addiction and misuse, infant development, advertising, labeling and quality control of legalized cannabis. We will also require that the smoking of cannabis adheres to the Clean Indoor Air Act.
Finally, we will not make the same missteps that occurred during the early implementing stages of Maryland’s medical cannabis program — missteps that initially kept diverse business owners, entrepreneurs and investors from participating in the industry. Moving forward, equity must be at the forefront. The legislation calls for an analysis of the impact of barriers that confront Black and brown communities. This analysis will enable the legislature to determine what measures would be appropriate to ensure maximum participation for these communities to partake in the growing, distribution and sale of cannabis. An equitable regulatory policy is simply not legally possible without this analysis and the information it will provide. The legislation also creates a fund that will provide operating, capital and educational assistance to help minority business owners participate in this new industry. Speaker Jones has committed to that fund being capitalized in this budget.
Marylanders deserve to have their voices heard at the ballot box on the question of legalization. Once they vote yes, the House of Delegates will continue to augment the policy to create the best, most equitable path to legal recreational cannabis. Too many people have already suffered the consequences of a misguided war on drugs. House Bill 837, together with House Bill 1, is a rapid but responsible approach to legal recreational cannabis.
Del. Luke H. Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, is chair of the House Judiciary Committee within the Maryland General Assembly. He can be reached at Luke.Clippinger@house.state.md.us.