Legislation legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland on July 1 — a year faster than a leading House measure — attracted significant support Thursday during a state Senate hearing.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, would create a legal recreational marijuana market without first asking voters to approve a state constitutional amendment in the November general election.
Carter’s measure, which would place the legal limit at 4 ounces, aims to ensure that communities heavily policed during the war on drugs can benefit from the burgeoning industry supplying the drug.
Her legislation would immediately establish marijuana regulations and raise the limit higher than a measure approved by the House last week. The House measure would take effect in July 2023 if voters approved.
An alternative proposal by Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, also would create a regulatory framework — for example, on taxing marijuana sales — while similarly requiring a voter referendum. His bill would legalize 2 ounces per person age 21 or over.
The recently passed House bill could allow eligible people to possess up to 1.5 ounces of recreational marijuana after July 1, 2023. Under current law possession of 10 grams (about a third of an ounce) can mean prison and a fine.
Feldman, the vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said during Thursday’s committee meeting he believes he can work with Carter to help craft a final bill.
“I don’t look at these bills as being in conflict. I’m looking to you as a partner,” Feldman said to Carter, who was testifying about her bill. “We have no doubt that we can work out the differences in those provisions.”
Feldman said significant common ground was shared not only by the Senate bills, but also by the House-approved measure sponsored by Democratic Del. Luke Clippinger of Baltimore, the House Judiciary Committee chair. Under a companion bill the House also approved, 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.
“We can easily resolve all three bills,” Feldman said.
Maryland would join Washington, D.C., and 18 states — including nearby Virginia and New Jersey — that have legalized recreational marijuana.
Past Maryland debate has included worries about how cannabis affects the health of young users, and how legalizing the drug could increase the number of people driving impaired.
Feldman’s remarks underscored the apparent inevitability of passage this year. Polls have shown ample support for legalization in the state, including 60% in a Goucher College Poll last fall, up from 50% in 2014. Maryland legalized marijuana for medical purposes that year.
But it remained unclear whether a ballot referendum would be included in the final legislation.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones has said she favors putting the issue to voters. The House-passed bill would establish a two-step procedure similar to the process used to legalize sports betting in the state.
In November 2020, Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing sports betting, and the General Assembly approved the regulations the following year.
Noting Jones’ position, Feldman told the committee Thursday: “We’re trying to be a bit pragmatic about what’s achievable this year.”
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.
“The question of should we legalize marijuana is over,” testified Michael Collins, the strategic policy and planning director for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Office.
“Nationally, marijuana legalization is an inevitability,” Collins said. “Indeed Maryland is well behind the curve when it comes to this issue.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Carter said legislation is essential to correcting inequities in how the criminalization of cannabis has affected Black and brown communities.
The issue, she said, “has become super important to me in ways that really strike me at the core of my being.”
Carter’s bill also would prohibit warrantless law enforcement searches based on the odor of marijuana alone.
Feldman said he wanted to make sure that language would not restrict legitimate searches.
That, he said, is “a legitimate discussion this committee should have.”