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Politics

Maryland House approves legislation allowing voters to decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use

The Maryland House of Delegates approved legislation Friday that would allow voters to decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana use for people 21 and older.

The measure, which has not yet been considered by the Senate, authorizes a state constitutional amendment that would appear on the ballot for the general election. If approved, the regulatory details, such as how to tax sales, would be decided by the General Assembly and take effect in July 2023.

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Friday’s vote in the Democratic-controlled House was 96-34.

Maryland would join Washington, D.C., and 18 states — including nearby Virginia and New Jersey — that have legalized recreational marijuana.

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There’s long been interest in legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Maryland. Polls have shown ample support for legalization, including 60% in a Goucher College Poll last fall, up from 50% in 2014. Maryland legalized marijuana for medical purposes that year.

Democratic Del. Luke Clippinger of Baltimore said the legislation amounted to “important first steps” toward reversing years of marijuana convictions.

“Those thousands of incarcerations have not made us safer,” said Clippinger, the House Judiciary Committee chair.

Past Maryland debate included 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. Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County, the top-ranking House Republican, sought during debate earlier this week to permit some counties to opt out of legalization if a majority of their voters opposed it. Democrats rejected his amendment.

Currently, possession of 10 grams or more of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can draw punishments of up to six months imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000. Violators are subject to a $100 fine for a first offense of possessing less than 10 grams.

Under a companion bill — approved Friday on a 92-37 vote — people charged only with cannabis possession would have their records expunged from the Maryland Judiciary Case Search website and the state’s criminal records database. Those currently in jail or prison could apply to the court to have their sentence reduced to the time already served.

The legislation would allow people over 21 to possess up to 1.5 ounces of recreational marijuana after July 1, 2023. An amount from 1.5 ounces to 2.5 ounces would be lessened to a civil offense instead of a misdemeanor.

The Senate is considering alternatives, including a legalization proposal that would not require a constitutional amendment and would speed up the establishment of regulatory procedures by the General Assembly.

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Senate President Bill Ferguson had no immediate comment after the House vote, but has said he favors legislation by Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, legalizing and regulating marijuana in a single bill rather than adopting a two-step approach.

Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who has long advocated for legalization, said Friday that the basic approach taken by the House of Delegates — narrowly addressing criminal convictions while putting off regulatory, tax and investment issues until after a referendum — is “woefully inadequate.”

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Carter, who is sponsoring a bill to create a legal recreational marijuana market, said she and other senators have been focused on putting together a detailed framework that ensures communities heavily policed during the war on drugs can benefit from the new industry.

”It has to be about equity and reparations or else there’s no point in going forward with it,” she said. “We’re about to let a few people make millions and millions of dollars off of the same thing that thousands of Black and brown people were imprisoned for.”

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has not taken a position on legalizing recreational marijuana. The governor previously said he would prefer a referendum to legislators acting directly, but wouldn’t say how he would vote on the issue. A Hogan spokesman didn’t return messages Friday about the House action.

In 2020, there were 1,072 arrests in Maryland for marijuana possession, including 59% of people who are Black, 39% white and 2% Asian, according to a nonpartisan analysis. Black Marylanders are twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared with their share of the state’s population.

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The legislation also calls for the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission to study the methods and frequency of marijuana use, incidents of impaired driving due to the drug and other information to establish a “baseline” about usage. The state would be required to assess whether more needs to be done to help minorities and women enter the industry.

Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Carroll County Republican, said during Friday’s debate that the bill would wrongly legalize marijuana before the state can conduct its study of the public health effects.

“We’re putting the marijuana cart before the proverbial horse,” Shoemaker said.


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