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Legalized Pot, Other Bills Die In 2021 Session

Rachel Baye

Bills that seemed to have momentum fell victim to other, pressing issues

When Maryland’s General Assembly returned to Annapolis this year, a few bills that hadn’t passed in previous sessions seemed to have gained some momentum. But as lawmakers were mired in other concerns that momentum died.

There were the bills to legalize recreational marijuana. After all, 15 other states had done it. Virginia and Delaware were on the verge of doing it. The Senate bill had some powerful co-sponsors: Senate President Bill Ferguson, majority leader Nancy King, the chairs of three committees and vice chair of one of them.

Sen. Brian Feldman, the finance committee chair and lead sponsor of the bill, said then that sounded good, but he wasn’t sure about where his colleagues in the chamber stood, or where the governor stood.

It didn’t take long for his optimism to fade.

“I had members of my committee asking me about, you know, do I have good science to show what the impact of marijuana is on the brain,” he recalled. “Well, you know, if people are asking those kinds of questions, they're probably maybe not inclined to be supporting any kind of legalization bill.”

Feldman says he now has the benefit of seeing where the differences of opinion lie and where he might be able to figure out some compromises for the 2022 session.

“I have a better understanding of the politics, where the votes are who we need to lobby some more,” he said. “And that all played out in a session where we are really truncated in our ability to just do the kinds of things you need to do to get a bill like this moving.”

Del. Jazz Lewis, the Prince George’s Democrat sponsoring the House version, said lawmakers got bogged down in some weighty issues; the COVID-19 pandemic and economic relief for people affected by it, a package of police reform bills and help for tenants at risk of eviction.

Despite a recent Goucher poll that found more than two-thirds of Marylanders approved of legalizing recreational marijuana, the steam has gone out of the push for legalization. Nonetheless, Lewis said he’s laid the groundwork for a similar bill next year.

“We established a framework for how we should look at this issue, which is from a racial equity lens,” he said. “Making sure that those who have borne the brunt of incarceration benefit from tax proceeds and are included in the industry.”

Lewis also was the House sponsor of a bill to ban flavored tobacco products. Tobacco manufacturers, he argued, have used flavors such as apple, cherry, chocolate and honey to attract young people.

But his bill and the Senate version fell by the wayside. Lewis says it stalled in a Senate committee.

“They wanted to exclude menthol from being included,” he explained. “Whereas in the House, that's one of the primary things they want in.”

That wasn’t the only issue.

“There's a bit of disagreement on vape as well,” he said. “So we'll see what ends up happening. But I'm starting to feel like we may not have enough runway for that one.”

And bills that would have banned PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, in fire-fighting foam, rugs and food packaging in Maryland died as well.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals.” They don’t break down in the environment or the human body and are related to myriad health problems. They already had been at least partially banned in four other states.

But Del. Sara Love, the Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring the House version, said her bill fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The health and government operations committee let us know pretty early on that unless it was COVID related or an emergency bill, it was likely that they were not going to get to it," she said.

Public health experts began raising alarms about the chemicals in the 1990s, she said, so she is committed to bringing the bill back next year, much as Feldman and Lewis say they will try again.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.