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State Lawmakers Start Marijuana Legalization Effort

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Maryland lawmakers speak with John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow on governance studies at the Brookings Institution, during the first meeting of a workgroup focused on efforts to legalize recreational marijuana use. Credit: YouTube

Wednesday was the first meeting of a legislative panel tasked with sorting out issues related to legalizing recreational marijuana use in Maryland. State House Speaker Adrienne Jones has said to expect a referendum on whether to legalize the drug in the 2022 election.

WYPR’s Rachel Baye watched the meeting and joins Nathan Sterner with some details.

What was the meeting designed to accomplish? 

The meeting laid some of the groundwork. The group learned about issues 18 other states and the District of Columbia have faced when they legalized recreational marijuana use over the last decade or so.

Jones has made it clear that Maryland will do this with an eye toward racial justice and equity — making sure that the communities of color who have been most affected by marijuana-related policies and the war on drugs are compensated for past wrongs and have a stake in this new market. So that was a major focus of the meeting.

As other states have implemented marijuana programs, some of them have done so with an eye toward correcting past racial injustices. What sorts of things have been on the table?

States such as New York, New Jersey and Illinois have done three main things to address this.

First, they expunged low-level marijuana crimes. Even though white and Black Marylanders use marijuana at roughly similar rates, Black Marylanders are more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes.

Second, they ensured ownership and investment opportunities for Black-owned businesses, or even people with past marijuana convictions.

Finally, they invested in the communities most affected by the war on drugs and racist drug policies.

The workgroup heard from John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow on governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who has researched this issue and wrote Marijuana: A Short History.

“That's broad-based investment — not so much not focused specifically on issues like criminal justice reform, but investing in education, investing in community centers, investing in individuals themselves, child care, workforce training, etc,” Hudak said. “Recognizing that the war on drugs affected both individuals, and as I've written in the past, has affected the families and the communities around them, even for individuals not directly facing a cannabis arrest or conviction.”

Could Maryland do something like wipe out past convictions for marijuana-related crimes, along with passing a legalization program? 

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat who represents part of Charles County, raised that issue.

For context, a lot of the discussion looked at Colorado, which was the first state to implement a legal recreational marijuana program.

“It's still a felony in Colorado, to sell marijuana — actually now enforced more than before, because now you're messing with people's money and taxes, so we’re not going to be, and Colorado hasn't expunged any of the selling — any of the African Americans who were selling to make a living or because that's the only way out the hood,” Wilson said. “There's no state that expunges the selling or distribution of marijuana.”

Hudak said he couldn’t say for sure that all jurisdictions that have legalized recreational use have continued to convict people for selling even small amounts of the drug.

But he said, yes, many jurisdictions make those crimes ineligible for expungement.

And in places that continue to convict for certain marijuana-related crimes, the racial disparities persist or even get worse. Though there are fewer overall arrests, Black people are still disproportionately more likely to be arrested.

Let’s turn to the money picture now. When states legalize marijuana, they also tax it. Do we have any idea about the kind of economic impact Maryland’s tax revenues could have on Maryland’s bottom line?

Hudak had an answer for this.

“It is true that significant amounts of tax revenue come into the coffers of states that have legalized cannabis,” he said. “But it is not a level of tax revenue that will reverse budget deficits, that will build schools across the state of Maryland, that will fill in all the potholes in the state and magically cure all of the state's budget woes.”

That said, in Colorado, which is demographically similar to Maryland, more than $11 billion worth of cannabis has been sold since 2014.

Legalizing marijuana also bolsters ancillary industries — think construction for the dispensaries, and lawyers and accountants to help the businesses operate.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
"If radio were a two-way visual medium," Nathan would see WYPR listeners every weekday between 5am and 3pm. Weekday mornings, Nathan serves up the latest Maryland news and weather (interspersed with the occasional snarky comment). Nathan also does continuity breaks through the midday, adds audio flaire to Sheilah Kast's "On The Record," infrequently fills in for Tom Hall on "Midday," does all sorts of fundraising stuff, AND "additional tasks where assigned". When not at WYPR, Nathan teaches a class on audio documentary at Towson University, and spends their spare time running around Baltimore's neighborhoods and hiking around Maryland's natural areas. Before coming to WYPR, Nathan spent 8 years at WAMU in Washington -- working every job from part-time receptionist to on-air host, gaining experience in promotions, fundraising, audience analysis, and program production. They've also served as a fundraising consultant, assisting dozens of public radio stations nationwide with on-air fundraisers. Originally from rural Pennsylvania, Nathan has called Charm City home since 2005.
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