December 24, 2020 By Ben Adlin
With lawmakers in Maryland preparing to consider marijuana legalization during next year’s legislative session, this week a lead proponent in the House of Delegates unveiled an early outline of what the state’s legal cannabis system could look like.
Del. Jazz Lewis (D), who prefiled the legalization bill, shared a draft of the legislation with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. While his office said it’s “still working on the bill” and that “things are subject to change,” Lewis’s current plan would legalize and regulate the cannabis, allow for sales by state-licensed businesses, expunge past convictions and establish a social equity program meant to reinvest in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.
In a statement to Marijuana Moment, Lewis said he introduced the legislation, HB0032, “because we have the data and popular opinion on our side to end prohibition.”
“States that have legalized have seen a decline in teen usage due to disruptions of the illicit market,” Lewis said. “Law enforcement has mostly stated they would rather go after actual criminals than young people who shouldn’t be involved with the justice system.”
“We can and should do better,” the lawmaker continued. “We allow for the expungement of records, creating social equity businesses to include minorities and the formerly incarcerated, and we dedicate resources to revitalizing disconnected communities. The time for restoring communities and ending prohibition is now.”
The bill’s language wasn’t previously available to the public even though Lewis pre-filed it in October, according to a representative from the state’s Department of Legislative Services. “Pre-filed legislation is considered confidential until it starts to appear on the website,” that person said.
Maryland’s legislative session begins January 13, and Lewis’s legalization legislation is set for a procedural first reading that day in both the Judiciary and Health and Government Operations committees.
Under the draft legislation provided to Marijuana Moment by the delegate’s office, adults 21 and older would be able to possess up to two ounces of cannabis or 15 grams of concentrate. Possession of other THC-infused products would be limited to 1,500 milligrams of total THC. Possession of more than that—up to two times the proposed limit—would be punishable by civil fine of up to $250 or up to 16 hours of community service.
Adults would also be able to grow cannabis at home for personal use, with individuals permitted to cultivate up to six plants in a location not visible from outside the property and not accessible to minors. Adults could also legally share cannabis with other adults or gift small amounts of marijuana.
Smoking cannabis in public would carry a civil fine of up to $50, though individuals could instead perform up to five hours of community service.
Landlords could prohibit tenants from smoking inside or consuming marijuana in a manner that creates an odor that disturbs other tenants, and employers would be able to fire employees for being under the influence of cannabis at work.
Legalization would also trigger automatic expungements of “standalone cannabis offenses” by October 2022. Offenses that were part of a case with other charges will be expunged by October 2023. People currently jailed or under government supervision for simple cannabis possession would be released under the proposal.
“The next step in any policy is making sure you help as many people as possible without harming others,” Lewis said. “Our bill does that as well.”
On the commercial side, Lewis’s bill would allow private cannabis retailers and delivery services. Individual municipalities could ban cannabis businesses, but they would not be able to prohibit deliveries.
Marijuana products would be subject to a 20 percent tax on the retail price in addition to Maryland’s six percent sales tax. Local governments could also impose a tax of up to three percent within their jurisdictions.
Much of the state revenue would be directed to undoing the negative consequences of the drug war, which have fallen disproportionately on racial minorities, specifically Black and Latino communities.
More than a quarter (27 percent) of revenue from taxes and fees would go to a Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund “to serve communities impacted by poverty, mass incarceration, or racism via grants to organizations utilizing evidence-proven and evaluated tactics to address these challenges,” according to a summary of the bill. Another 20 percent would go to the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities, while smaller amounts would go to zero-interest loans to social equity applicants (10 percent) and technical assistance for those applicants (three percent).
Portions of state revenue would also go to drug treatment and prevention programs (seven percent), public education about drug risks (two percent), cannabis research (two percent) and training law enforcement to recognize impaired driving (up to 1 percent).
Another quarter of all revenue would go to the state’s general fund.
As for business licensing, the proposal would prioritize diversity and inclusion by providing that only social equity applicants would be able to apply for delivery licenses. Retail licenses would be granted more broadly, but social equity applicants would be awarded extra points in the state’s application scoring process.
The bill would not set any limits on the number of cannabis businesses in the state, but only 200 retail licenses would be given out per licensed medical dispensary in the state. More retailers could be licensed later if necessary.
Advocates have cheered Lewis’s introduction of the bill, expressing optimism that some form of cannabis legalization could become law next year.
“We applaud Del. Lewis for his leadership to craft a legalization bill that is rooted in reparative justice, equity, and inclusion,” Karen O’Keefe, Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policies, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday. “It would release cannabis prisoners, expunge past convictions, reinvest in communities hardest hit by the war on drugs, train Marylanders for good jobs in cannabis, and create an industry that benefits disproportionately impacted communities.”
“We are working with a coalition of organizations that are committed to legalizing marijuana in Maryland, and to getting legalization right,” she added, “and we hope to get this bill past the finish line in 2021.”
Maryland legalized medical marijuana through an act of the legislature in 2012, and a decriminalization law took effect in 2014 that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams with a civil fine of $100 to $500. But since then a number of efforts to further marijuana reform have fallen short. A bill earlier this year to expand the possession threshold to an ounce of marijuana passed the House earlier this 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 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.
It’s possible the governor will become even more open to the popular issue of cannabis legalization as he considers a potential 2024 presidential bid.
As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee in March of last year 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.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D), then the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said during those 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.”
Voters in nearby New Jersey, meanwhile, legalized marijuana for adults during last month’s general election. Lawmakers there last week sent an enabling bill to the governor to establish a framework for legal sales.
Meanwhile, top officials in neighboring Virginia are gearing up for a marijuana legalization push in 2021, with the governor including funds in his annual budget proposal to set the stage for eventual implementation.