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Maryland lawmakers appear unlikely to vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana during the 2020 General Assembly session.
Maryland lawmakers appear unlikely to vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana during the 2020 General Assembly session. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune / Chicago Tribune)

The prospect of legalizing recreational marijuana use in Maryland is growing dim for 2020.

While there’s growing acceptance for adult use of the drug, and some see it as a potential source of money to boost spending on public schools, state lawmakers appear not quite ready to legalize the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

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“I think the consensus is: We are not recommending legislation this session to legalize adult use,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais, who co-chairs a bipartisan work group of delegates and senators that’s been studying marijuana. “We are still in the investigative mode.”

Maryland legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 2014, and there are now 16 growers, 18 processors and 85 dispensaries operating statewide. Dumais and work group co-chair Sen. Bill Ferguson said members say they still have many more issues to resolve before moving forward on legalization governing recreational use.

“It seems like every time we get some information to answer one question, it just begets another three or four questions,” said Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The work group has been meeting for the past several months to investigate marijuana-related issues. Some members took a research trip to Colorado, where recreational use has been legal since 2014.

“It seems like every time we get some information to answer one question, it just begets another three or four questions."

Maryland lawmakers have introduced bills to legalize the adult use of pot for years, but the legislation languished in committees.

With the state’s medical cannabis industry finally up and running and increased acceptance of recreational use — 57 percent support in a Goucher College poll this year — plus the need to raise money for education, legal pot has gotten a closer look from more lawmakers.

But after studying the many factors involved — from setting tax rates to identifying drugged driving to expunging old convictions — the work group found it still has more work to do. Without an endorsement from the work group, legalization is unlikely to move forward in the 2020 General Assembly session.

Del. David Moon, a work group member and legalization supporter, said the General Assembly now could be on track to seriously consider legalization in 2021.

“That’s the new target, and nothing that has happened thus far leads me to believe that goal is not achievable,” said Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat. “I am feeling pretty optimistic that we’ll be able to pull something off in 2021.”

Moon sees promise in the “twist of fate” that Ferguson has been tapped to be the next state Senate president when lawmakers go back to work in January and current president Thomas V. Mike Miller steps down.

“What are the chances your Senate president is also going to be steeped in the issue?" he said. “Now that’s the case.”

The nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project plans to press for legalization in 2020 anyway, as it has for the past several years.

“The longer the legislature waits to move forward with legalization, Marylanders are going to be subjected to the harms of cannabis prohibition,” said Olivia Naugle, a legislative coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Those harms include users risking arrest and having to buy product from unregulated sellers, as well as the loss of potential revenue for the state, Naugle said.

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The work group plans to meet one more time in December to finalize its recommendations, which are likely to include measures that stop short of full legalization, such as creating a commission to start collecting data on marijuana use and marijuana-related arrests.

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the work group efforts have been “a really beneficial process.”

“I do think we’ve been able to highlight where the pressure points are and get a sense of where people stand,” he said.

Del. Robin Grammer, a Baltimore County Republican and work group member, said that with legalization now a “two years down the road question,” he’d like to see other marijuana policies addressed.

For example, he said, medical cannabis patients are precluded from owning guns, which can limit their job opportunities and sporting activities.

“If we’re not going to move the big question this year, to me, we should prioritize the issues that are already an issue,” he said.

And Kris Furnish, co-founder of the grassroots group Maryland Marijuana Justice, said if lawmakers aren’t going forward with legalization now, they should consider raising the threshold of how much marijuana an individual is allowed to have without being prosecuted. Possession of less than 10 grams is a civil offense in Maryland with a potential fine, while possession of more than that amount is a criminal violation.

“Are we just trying to make a crap-ton of money, or are we trying to end prohibition here?" Furnish asked. “Why keep throwing people in jail for minuscule marijuana, when we’re already talking about how to fund an expungement program?”

Becky Feldman, the deputy public defender in Maryland, said further decriminalization of marijuana possession would allow for “better allocation of limited criminal justice resources.”

“Criminal consequences for marijuana possession have had a disproportionately negative impact on black and brown communities, despite the act of possession posing little to no risk to public safety,” Feldman said.

In Baltimore, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting cases of marijuana possession this year, saying convictions have hurt people’s job prospects, adversely affected minority neighborhoods, and wasted the time and resources of police and prosecutors. But other jurisdictions have continued to prosecute marijuana possession cases.

Mosby, a Democrat, said it’s important that lawmakers get all the details right if they’re going to legalize marijuana. In her opinion, that includes making sure people with past marijuana convictions can get them automatically expunged and that people of color can make money in the new industry.

“Marijuana reform is a crucial step towards ending the failed war on drugs,” she said. “I’ve been vocal on that. We need to pursue a public health approach to drugs.”

Work group members also learned during their research that taxing legal marijuana is not likely to generate enough money to fund a big boost in public education, as some had hoped. Lawmakers are expected to consider gradually increasing state spending on education to $2.8 billion more per year a decade from now to implement the education reforms recommended by the Kirwan Commission that has been studying how to improve public schools.

Marijuana tax revenue might not make a dent in that bill. Lawmakers on the marijuana work group acknowledged that the state would need to keep taxes low enough so the price of marijuana isn’t so high that people keep buying from black-market dealers instead of licensed dispensaries.

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There’s no official estimate of how much tax money could be generated from marijuana, but lawmakers have discussed targets ranging from $50 million to $300 million per year — much of which would be used for regulating the marijuana market, conducting anti-addiction education and training law enforcement officers.

“This should not be about the money,” said Sen. Andrew Serafini, a Washington County Republican. “To me, it’s a prohibition issue.”

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said it’s worth considering marijuana tax revenue as part of the funding program for schools — even if that’s a discussion for future years.

“We’re not going to be ready to do that this session,” she said.

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