The effort to fully legalize marijuana got a boost Friday, with the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates announcing her support for allowing voters to decide in 2022.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones issued a statement saying that a referendum should decide whether to legalize the drug, which is currently allowed only for medical use. She also formed a bipartisan work group to work out the myriad details that such legalization would entail, from changes to criminal laws to the taxing structure.
“While I have personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization,” the Baltimore County Democrat said in a statement.
She added: “The House will pass legislation early next year to put this question before the voters, but we need to start looking at changes needed to state law now.”
The work group will start meeting in the fall, Jones said.
Jones’ counterpart in the state Senate, President Bill Ferguson, previously signaled interest in marijuana legalization and threw his full support Friday behind passing a recreational marijuana law during next spring’s legislative session. The Baltimore Democrat co-chaired an earlier joint House-Senate committee that met before the pandemic to explore the details of legalization.
“Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational cannabis,” Ferguson said in a statement Friday. “Maryland must do the same and a large majority of Marylanders in both political parties support an equitable framework that immediately addresses the injustices in our current criminal justice system.”
Ferguson added that the Maryland Senate “continues to be ready to move a fair, just and equitable program forward, and we intend to do so during the 2022 Session.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, declined to comment through a spokesman.
Legalization of adult-use marijuana has gradually gained support among an increasing number of Americans in recent years.
The Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that advocates for legalization, counts 18 states that allow adults to use marijuana after Virginia’s legalization law went into effect earlier this month. As of July 1, Virginians can possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four cannabis plants, though there isn’t yet a commercial market.
The District of Columbia legalized the possession, use and cultivation of recreational marijuana in 2015 following a local ballot initiative. Gifting up to an ounce of marijuana is legal in D.C., although directly buying or selling the product remains technically against the law.
Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have legalized medical marijuana use only.
About two-thirds of Marylanders support legalization, according to a Goucher College Poll released in March. The support for legalization showed growth in that poll, rising from 51% in 2013.
And a majority of Marylanders across the political spectrum support legalization, with 77% support from Democrats, 50% from Republicans and 60% among independents.
Supporters of legalization argue that marijuana prohibition is part of a failed “war on drugs” that’s needlessly incarcerated people for using or possessing a relatively mild drug. And they note that arrests and convictions for marijuana offenses disproportionately affect people of color.
A report produced for the General Assembly earlier this year found that while Black and white Americans use marijuana at the same rate, people who are Black are arrested more often. In Maryland in 2019, about 54% of the nearly 15,000 arrests for marijuana possession were of people who identify as Black or African American — though only 30% of the state population is Black.
If marijuana is legalized, a key focus of lawmakers will be figuring out how to address old arrests and convictions — such as automatically wiping those from people’s criminal records, or requiring them to apply to have the cases expunged from the court system.
“Cannabis use had had a disparate impact on people of color for too long with no real impact on public safety,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who heads the House Judiciary Committee and who will also lead the work group that Jones formed.
Clippinger said the work group will develop rules for a legal marijuana industry keeping in mind the speaker’s charge “to do this with an eye toward equity and consideration to Black and brown neighborhoods and businesses historically impacted by cannabis use.”
Clippinger said he personally supports letting Maryland voters decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana, but the work group will craft a comprehensive slate of regulations to launch a legal market if voters approve.
There also are questions about whether and how to tax the drug, as well as who should be able to grow, process and sell it. Companies already licensed for medical cannabis are likely to want to secure approval to sell adult-use marijuana, though lawmakers will balance that with their interest in getting small and minority- and women-owned businesses into the industry.
Del. David Moon, a longtime proponent of legalization, said that Maryland can learn from how other states have handled such issues of diversity and equity. It’s perhaps a benefit of Maryland moving toward legalization much later than other states, he said.
“Maryland going later hopefully doesn’t mean that it signals that we somehow lacked courage. I hope it means that we have the best, most equitable system compared to some other states,” said Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Del. Jason Buckel, a Western Maryland Republican who heads the GOP caucus in the House of Delegates, said his initial inclination is to oppose legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland but that he will “try and keep an open mind” as a member of the work group.
Buckel cited “fundamental concerns” about the technical challenge of enforcing impaired driving laws for people high on the drug and worries that legalizing recreational marijuana for adults could drive “a significant increase” in use among teenagers.
Buckel added that he initially was only a tepid supporter of medical marijuana but has grown more supportive of that industry in recent years.
”I’m going to keep an open mind, certainly, and listen to evidence, facts, data from all sides on the issue and try to come up with something and support something that I think is best for Marylanders,” Buckel said.
Buckel said he expects many of his fellow Republicans to take a similar approach and also want to dig into details about how to regulate a drug that’s still illegal at the federal level and how communities could limit the location of stores.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a knee-jerk, reflexive opposition or embrace,” he said.
Del. Robin Grammer, a Republican work group member from eastern Baltimore County, said lawmakers will have their work cut out for them in figuring out taxation, regulation and the like.
“I think prohibition is clearly not working,” Grammer said. “There are 50 different issues to work on in this space.”
Grammer, who was part of the earlier marijuana work group, said he doesn’t think the question of legalization will fall along traditional party lines. While being “adamantly pro-reform or pro-decriminalization or pro-legalization” can be politically tougher for some Republicans, Grammer said he thinks many will consider the lessons learned from the state’s creation of a medical cannabis program.
“There are people going into facilities, viewing products, getting advice, going home and using medical marijuana for pain relief or whatever their concern is,” Grammer said. “And they don’t have to go to the guy down the street who is getting his drugs from who knows where.”
Bowie Police Chief John Nesky, the current president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, said he hopes law enforcement leaders will be able to offer input on any proposed legislation but that the police chiefs won’t take a position on legalization until they’re can review the rules that lawmakers are considering.
Nesky said he has some concerns about how legalizing marijuana in Maryland might create issues with federal law, including gun regulations that prohibit marijuana users from buying firearms, but “it’s nothing that other states aren’t battling with right now anyway.”
“We do understand that norms are changing and views, especially surrounding marijuana, are changing,” Nesky said. “It’s something of course we would be very, very interested in seeing what the speaker’s plans are and what the precise details are.”
Mackie Barch, chairman of the CANMD trade group for the medical cannabis industry in the state, said it will be important for lawmakers to get the details right, especially with criminal justice reform.
“I think people forget that we are migrating an illicit product into a legal market and standing up a huge industry and creating a regulatory framework,” said Barch, chief cannabis officer at CULTA, which has a growing operation in Cambridge and a dispensary in Baltimore. “This is complicated and it’s hard.”