Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to legalize adult-use cannabis.
The vote on the issue was called by the Associated Press at about 9:33 p.m. when unofficial election results showed nearly two-thirds of voters opting for legalization.
Maryland joins Washington, D.C., and 19 other states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. Voters four other states also were voting Tuesday on recreational marijuana.
Even though Maryland voters chose to legalize recreational cannabis, it doesn’t mean that any adult aged 21 and older will be able to walk into the nearest dispensary and legally buy cannabis. Tuesday’s vote essentially gives Maryland lawmakers the green light to go ahead and set up a recreational industry that could start as soon as July 1.
Approval of adult-use cannabis will trigger some legislation passed in the 2022 session. That includes a transitional period between Jan. 1 and July 1 where some penalties related to cannabis possession would be lessened. People who possess up to an ounce and a half of cannabis can be fined $100 and criminal penalties for possession up to 2.5 ounces will be replaced with civil citations. The law change also will establish a process for expungement of past cannabis possession convictions.
Another major development of the legalization vote is homegrown cannabis. Any adult aged 21 or older can legally grow up to two cannabis plants at home starting July 1. Households will be restricted to four total plants, which must be grown securely and out of public view.
At the very earliest, adults in Maryland could legally purchase recreational cannabis on July 1, but enacting the necessary regulations and laws — and working out disagreements — could delay the start of the industry by months or possibly years as happened with the state’s medical cannabis program.
While the General Assembly approved such a program in 2014, delays in rule-making and licensing meant the first dispensaries didn’t open until 2017.
Maryland is one of 37 states that has a medical cannabis program. It has more than 100 operational dispensaries and the industry’s revenue last year totaled about $600 million in Maryland.
But whether the medical industry is allowed to participate could have huge implications on when recreational cannabis is legally available for purchase in the state.
Wendy Bronfein, co-founder of Curio, one of Maryland’s biggest cannabis companies, was loading up her car Monday night with about 100 pro-legalization yard signs created by the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association.
“I think the existing industry has established the quality, safety and reliability, and proven the existing market. And in a business like this, to ignore proven reliable players I don’t think is a wise decision or really a pragmatic choice,” Bronfein said. “From the conversations I’ve had and watching the workgroups and things like that, I think the legislature is very much looking to meet that [July 1] deadline.”
Justin Tepe, a lawyer at Goodell DeVries who works with cannabis companies, is also hopeful that a recreational industry could launch by next summer, but he acknowledged that’s an ambitious timeline.
In addition to basic regulatory questions — like the number of licenses to issue — Maryland lawmakers are expected to review a racial and gender disparity study on the medical cannabis industry. The state was harshly criticized for a lack of diversity in that industry at its launch. Lawmakers have since tried to rectify that, with mixed results.
“The social equity aspect is far and away the most prominent issue that needs to be answered,” Tepe said of the 2023 legislative session.
Not everyone is excited about the legalization vote.
Kevin Sabet, a former adviser on drug policy to three different White House administrations and the co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said Tuesday afternoon that he was convinced Maryland voters would approve the measure — and later come to regret it.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Sabet believes the language on the ballot was misleading, because it conflated decriminalization with legalization. Decriminalization means people can smoke a joint in the privacy of their home without fear of arrest, he said, but legalization means corporations pushing increasingly potent products with dangerous public health outcomes.
“We also don’t want a massive new industry taking the playbook from Big Tobacco.” Sabet said. “I think there’s an incredible amount of misinformation and greed surrounding the efforts to legalize marijuana, including in Maryland.”