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Bill To Legalize Marijuana Includes Social Redress

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Maryland was one of the first states in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. But as other states have moved to legalize small quantities of marijuana for adult use, similar bills have stalled in the General Assembly.

Now, lawmakers in Annapolis say they may have the momentum to pass a legalization bill.

The Senate version of the legalization bill has some powerful co-sponsors: Senate President Bill Ferguson, majority leader Nancy King and the chairs and vice chairs of two committees.

Sen. Brian Feldman, the Montgomery County Democrat, finance committee vice chair and lead sponsor of the bill, says that augurs well, but he’s still cautious.

“We don't know where everybody is, you know, in the chamber. And we certainly don't know where Governor Hogan is,” he said.

Gov. Larry Hogan has not taken a strong stand on marijuana in the past, though last May he vetoed a bill that would have shielded people with low-level cannabis convictions from having their records publicized on a state data base.

Jazz Lewis, the Prince Georges County Democrat sponsoring the House version, says he’s been working with members of the legislative black caucus to craft a bill. He says 15 states have passed legalization and Delaware and Virginia are working on legalization bills.

“So, you know, essentially, we're surrounded at this point, with jurisdictions that have either currently passed or are very likely to pass legislation very soon,” he said. “I think that changes the conversation, because now essentially, we're just missing out on revenue.”

Both bills would legalize possession by adults of up to four ounces of marijuana and allow individuals to grow up to six plants at home as long as their neighbors can’t see them. They also would trigger automatic expungement of cannabis offenses.

Lewis told the House Judiciary Committee this week that although marijuana has been decriminalized since 2014, Black people still made up 96% of the marijuana arrests in Baltimore between 2015 and 2017.

“The movement towards decriminalization and medical marijuana legalization in Maryland has only made marijuana legal for white consumption,” he said.

He said his bill would bring in revenue by taxing the sale of marijuana and charging fees to existing medical marijuana businesses to get into the legalized market. The money would go to community reinvestment funds aimed at undoing the damage the war on drugs has done primarily to Black and Brown communities.

“Sixty three percent of the revenue will be redirected to reparative justice and to ensuring equity in the industry,” he told the committee. “This includes 20% of the proceeds for our state's for HBCUs 27% of the funding for community reinvestment and repair fund to serve communities and individuals impacted by poverty, mass incarceration, and racism.”

There would be grants for startups for social equity businesses, technical assistance for applicants and training for cannabis business workers, including reentry programs.

Lewis said his bill, HB 32, would end what he called Maryland’s “failed policy on cannabis prohibition” and replace it with a system to test and regulate marijuana for adults.

“HB 32 takes marijuana production and sales off the streets and ensures regulated labeled and lab tested products, while creating thousands of new good jobs or businesses and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue to serve the community.”

Both the Senate and House bills would forbid smoking cannabis in public and allow landlords to prohibit tenants from smoking inside rental properties.

Feldman, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said one sticking point could be the differences in tax rates. He worried that if the rate is set too high, “people are going to stay in the unregulated illicit market and you’re not going to get the money you think you’re going to get.”

People, he said, may be willing to pay a premium for a legal product over an illegal one, “but they’re not going to pay a premium that’s out of whack.”

Lewis told the House committee that he already has lowered the tax rate of 29% in his original bill to 18%. The tax rate on the bill working its way through the Virginia General Assembly is 30%.

Debbie Ramsey, a retired Baltimore City detective, told the committee police resources are wasted on making marijuana arrests and they should focus on more serious crimes.

“Every officer knows that an arrest does not stop marijuana trade,” she said. “However, Black arrests are three times greater than whites. In my estimation, that lets me know that marijuana legalization is already legal in the white community and it's not legal in the black community.”

Opponents said they feared the use would filter down to young people.

Karen Randall, an emergency room doctor in Southern Colorado where marijuana is legal, said nearly all her patients were children of color. She warned the committee young people are using more, higher potency products.

“My last shift, I have three kids who are 15 and under, all addicted to cannabis, all here because they had suicidal ideation,” she said. “And the sad part is, is our community doesn't have enough resources to get them psychological help, or inpatient care.”

Amelia Arria, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said making cannabis more available will increase use by young people, erode cognitive abilities and increase chances that they'll disengage from school and other responsibilities.

“These negative impacts extend across gender, racial and ethnic groups and individuals of all socio economic backgrounds and can result in a cascade of social and economic losses across our broader society,” she said.

Del. Lewis and Sen. Feldman say they are working to resolve the differences in their bills. The hearing on the Senate bill is scheduled for the first week in March.