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Politics

Cannabis-related penalties reduced, among new Maryland laws effective New Year’s Day

Despite recreational cannabis still six months away from becoming fully legal in Maryland, New Year’s Day marks the first round of changes to the state’s cannabis laws after voters overwhelmingly approved legalization last fall.

The earliest Marylanders can use or possess recreational cannabis is July 1 under the law triggered by voters’ support of the ballot referendum by a more-than 2-1 margin.

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But several elements — including reduced penalties, pathways to record expungement and the official launch of an advisory council — take effect Jan. 1.

The changes are among a small number of new laws passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2022 that go into effect at the start of 2023, including a cap on monthly insulin costs, dental coverage for adults on Medicaid and a ban on a practice that some political campaigns have used in recent years to quietly collect recurring payments from unaware and perhaps unwilling donors.

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Hundreds of other changes made by legislators last year went into effect in 2022, such as expanded abortion access and efforts to reduce high-speed highway crashes.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Annapolis for their annual 90-day session that starts Jan. 11. It will be the first for Democratic Gov.-elect Wes Moore, whose inauguration will be Jan. 18, and a larger Democratic supermajority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Cannabis changes begin

A major agenda item for Moore and the incoming class of lawmakers will be setting up the state’s recreational cannabis industry.

They’re expected to establish regulations and laws for retail sales while addressing questions around social justice, employment, housing and more as they relate to cannabis. In the meantime, penalties will be reduced.

Starting Jan. 1, possession of up to 2.5 ounces will be considered a civil offense — with maximum fines of $100 for possession of up to 1.5 ounces and $250 for up to 2.5 ounces. Previous law considered possession of less than 10 grams (about a third of an ounce) to be a civil offense and 10 grams or more to be a criminal offense subject to up to six months imprisonment and/or $1,000.

After the transition period leading up to July 1, adults over age 21 will be allowed to possess up to 1.5 ounces and grow two cannabis plants at home.

“For decades, overly restrictive cannabis laws have been a pipeline to prison that have disproportionately impacted people of color,” House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said in a statement.

“The cannabis reform laws that the General Assembly passed last year coupled with the legislation we’re working on for the upcoming session will create more equity in our justice system and in the new recreational cannabis industry,” she said. “These reforms can’t reverse the harm done to those who were incarcerated for minor marijuana offenses, but it is a meaningful step forward.”

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The penalty for possession with the intent to distribute is also, as of Jan. 1, reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. People convicted of possessing or distributing cannabis, meanwhile, can file a petition for record expungement, and people incarcerated for a conviction related to cannabis can apply for resentencing.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the city’s House delegation, said she expects the expungement process — which can be complicated when there are convictions for multiple charges — to be one of several pieces that lawmakers revisit this year in an attempt to make cannabis legalization more equitable. Further discussions around employment, housing and getting Black-owned businesses a stake in the industry will be essential, she said.

“Expungement in its various forms is the absolute floor for equity,” said Smith.

Insulin costs, dental coverage and more

Health care providers in Maryland will also begin making major changes after Jan. 1 under new laws that set a $30 cap on monthly insulin costs for diabetics and that require dental coverage for Medicaid recipients.

The Insulin Cost Reduction Act in Maryland applies to all state-regulated commercial health insurance plans issued or renewed on or after Jan. 1. It also comes as a similar element in the federal Inflation Reduction Act goes into effect — limiting insulin costs to $35 per month but only for Medicare recipients.

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“The new year is bringing important new financial relief for Marylanders who use insulin,” Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, who sponsored the bill and represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, said in a statement. “Even one instance of insulin rationing can have devastating effects.”

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Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All! Coalition, said in a statement the law would benefit “tens of thousands of Marylanders.”

Meanwhile, Maryland will join nearly every other state in the country in requiring Medicaid to cover nonemergency dental services for adults. Children in the program were already covered.

About 60% of the roughly $132 million annual cost (half as much for the current, halfway completed fiscal year) will come from federal funds while the rest will come from the state’s general fund. About 800,000 adults in Maryland will be newly eligible for dental benefits, according to estimates as of the bill’s passing.

After a fervent election year that saw Maryland candidates raise millions of dollars for their campaigns, another new law is aimed at preventing a tactic used by former President Donald Trump and others that left supporters inadvertently donating more than they wanted.

In online donation pages, a pre-checked box, sometimes in small or difficult to read text, stated the donor would make the same contribution every month or in another recurring period. Trump had to refund millions in contributions because of it but also continued to fundraise with the same method.

Del. Julie Palakovich Carr, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said she wasn’t aware of any Maryland candidates using the tactic. She said it was a proactive measure to stay “up to date with the changing technologies” that led to some candidates “tricking people for failing to uncheck a box that was in the fine print.”


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