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Maryland Lawmakers Hold First Committee Hearing On Marijuana Legalization

The issue of legalizing marijuana in Maryland had its first committee hearing on Tuesday, with lawmakers considering a bill to regulate adult-use cannabis and earmark large portions of industry tax revenue for programs aimed at communities disproportionately harmed by the drug war.

“This bill ends Maryland’s failed policy of cannabis prohibition and replaces it with a system to test and regulate cannabis for adults 21 and older,” Del. Jazz Lewis (D), the sponsor of HB 32, said at the House Judiciary Committee hearing.

The measure “takes marijuana production and sales off the streets and ensures regulated, labeled, lab-tested products while creating thousands of new good jobs, businesses and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue to serve the community,” Lewis said.

The House panel heard more than two hours of testimony and debate on the bill at Tuesday’s hearing but ultimately did not vote on whether to advance the measure.

HB 32 is one of two marijuana legalization measures before Maryland lawmakers this year. The other is SB 708, introduced by Senate Finance Committee Vice Chair Brian Feldman (D) and cosponsored by top Senate Democrats including the body’s president and majority leader. That measure is scheduled to be heard by a Senate committee on March 4.

Lewis said when he filed the bill in December that he introduced the legislation “because we have the data and popular opinion on our side to end prohibition.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Lewis announced amendments meant to harmonize his proposal with the Senate legislation. Among the biggest changes, are decreased taxes and cutting the maximum number of marijuana retail licenses in half, from 200 to 100.

The biggest remaining difference between the two chambers’ bills, Lewis said, is that HB 32 would allow state regulators to issue an unlimited number of microbusiness licenses despite limits on medium and large business licenses. “That’s something that’s critically important to the independent dispensaries in order to survive competing with the vertically aligned businesses,” he said.

With the proposed changes, the bill would legalize possession of up to four ounces of marijuana—up from two in order to match the Senate bill—as well as home cultivation for personal use. Individuals with past convictions for low-level cannabis activity would see those records expunged, and people currently incarcerated for cannabis crimes would be resentenced or released.

Revenue from the newly legal industry is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars during the program’s early years and continue growing as the market matures. Nearly two-thirds of that revenue, 63 percent, will go to a community reinvestment fund, which would support programs to address the effects of poverty, mass incarceration and racism.

Additional money would go to the Maryland’s general fund, the state’s Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), substance abuse treatment, cannabis research and educational outreach, especially to encourage youth not to use the drug.

The bill would also allow existing medical marijuana businesses to enter the adult-use market early, although they would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in registration fees. That money would establish a social equity startup fund, which would provide capital and other resources to equity applicants looking to enter the industry.

“Let’s be clear: 30 percent of Maryland is Black,” Lewis said at Tuesday’s hearing. “We need to put our money where our mouth is.”

A number of lawmakers on the committee, as well as advocates who spoke in favor of HB 32, praised the measure’s strong focus equity, both in terms of criminal justice and when it comes to building a diverse legal industry.

“I personally would not support anything that did not have some protections for Black people being able to participate in this industry,” said committee Vice Chair Vanessa Atterbeary (D).

Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor in 2018, told the panel that “it is rare that you all have an opportunity to create an industry and, in the process, right past wrongs and create a more inclusive economy.”

Others who testified in support of the measure applauded its equity goals but suggested amendments to strengthen protections for small and minority-owned businesses. Hope Wiseman, CEO of Mary and Main, one of the state’s only Black-owned medical marijuana dispensaries, suggested that registration fees be adjusted to reflect that some type of businesses are more lucrative than others. Wiseman suggested a system with “growers paying the most, then processors, then dispensaries, as this is based on the amount of revenue that each license type generally makes.”

Skeptical lawmakers on the House panel pressed supporters on an array of typical legalization concerns, such as public consumption (which would remain illegal under the bill), driving under the influence of cannabis (also already illegal) and whether state-level legalization would interfere with employers screening workers for drug use (it wouldn’t).

Del. Mike Griffith (R), worried that legalizing THC-infused edibles would lead to increased use among youth. “My six year old would see an edible candy bar, wouldn’t know the difference, and would go to town,” he said.

Olivia Naugle, legislative analyst for the advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), replied that evidence from the first few U.S. states that legalized marijuana indicates youth use has actually fallen. “Colorado and Washington have both conducted large-scale surveys with thousands of high-school students since both states legalized cannabis in 2012, and those results have actually shown modest decreases in rates of youth cannabis use.” Naugle said. “I think regulating cannabis really sends a message to youth that marijuana is for adults, and for adults to use responsibly.”

Del. Ron Watson (D), who indicated he supports the bill, asked why its expungement provisions wouldn’t apply to people convicted of selling small amounts of marijuana. “It seems like everybody’s taken care of except the sales guy or gal,” he said.

Lewis replied that “I would gladly clear it all” but acknowledged that there would likely be disagreement over where to draw the line: “I imagine there may be some difference of opinion as to, you know, at what level someone moves from being a corner boy to being something more.”

Other lawmakers quizzed Lewis on how “equity” would be defined and who specifically would benefit under the proposal. “What if you’re just Black and live in the suburbs?” Atterbeary asked.

Lewis said three groups currently would qualify for equity benefits under the current bill: people formerly incarcerated on a cannabis-related charge or their family members, people who live in areas where data shows disproportionate policing of laws against cannabis and/or people who are racial minorities in the state.

He added that supporters have written to the state attorney general’s office to make sure those rules—specifically around race-based eligibility—are constitutional. “We’re waiting for that to come back right now,” Lewis said.

The bill would also reserve control of certain ancillary businesses, such as security and delivery services, exclusively for equity applicants.

Rajani Gudlavalleti, a member of the executive leadership team at the Baltimore Harm Control Coalition, told the panel that legalization and social equity measures are essential to undo drug-war harms and build healthy communities.

“Our vision for a healthier world requires a model of cannabis legalization that includes strategies for repair from the impacts of the drug war in communities of color,” Gudlavelleti said, “and so that is why Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition supports HB 32.”

The legalization bill would leave the state’s medical marijuana system unchanged, creating a separate agency to oversee the adult-use market. William Tilburg, executive director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Commission, which has not taken a position on the legislation, said that approach “quite literally doubles administrative costs to the state” and urged the two systems be overseen by a common regulator.

At one point in the hearing, Lewis announced that the Maryland Department of Health had endorsed the legalization plan, but he later told Marijuana Moment the claim was the result of miscommunication from a staffer at the department, who initially indicated in a text message to the lawmaker that it would “testify in support of” the bill.

A representative for the Department of Health told Marijuana Moment that the agency signed up as an “information” witness and took no position on the bill itself.

Maryland legalized medical marijuana through an act of the legislature in 2012. Two years later, a decriminalization law took effect that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams with a civil fine of $100 to $500. Since then, however, a number of efforts to further marijuana reform have fallen short.

A bill last year to expand the decriminalization possession threshold to an ounce passed the House last year but was never taken up in the Senate.

In May, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a bill that would have shielded people with low-level cannabis convictions from having their records publicized on a state database. In a veto statement, he said it was because lawmakers failed to pass a separate, non-cannabis measure aimed at addressing violent crime.

Hogan has hesitated to take a strong stand on marijuana in the past, though he’s more recently signaled openness to the idea. In 2017, he declined to respond to a question about whether voters should be able to decide the issue, but by mid-2018 he had signed a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana system and said full legalization was worth considering: “At this point, I think it’s worth taking a look at,” he said at the time.

As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee in 2019 held hearings on two bills that would have legalized marijuana. While those proposals didn’t pass, they encouraged many hesitant lawmakers to begin seriously considering the change.

Atterbeary, who was also at Tuesday’s hearing, said at the prior hearings that she had been “fundamentally opposed” to legalization in previous years but was increasingly “in the mindset that it’s been growing on me.”

In a statement to Marijuana Moment after Tuesday’s hearing, Naugle at MPP applauded Lewis for his leadership on HB 32. Passing the measure “would save thousands of Marylanders—disproportionately Black Marylanders—from arrests and criminal convictions.”

“There are now 15 states that have ended cannabis prohibition,” she added, noting that conservative states such as Montana and South Dakota have also passed legalization laws. “Maryland should follow suit by passing HB 32 this session. This is a just, equitable cannabis policy that Maryland could be proud of and be a leader to other states.”

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Photo by Ndispensable

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