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State lawmakers moving to legalize marijuana

Brett Levin / Flickr / Creative Commons

Maryland lawmakers returned to Annapolis Wednesday to take on a number of issues, among them, the legalization of recreational cannabis. Last fall, a Goucher poll found that 60 percent of Marylanders favor legalizing marijuana.

But the House and Senate are taking sharply different approaches.

The House of Delegates is proposing a constitutional amendment that would go before voters in the November election. The amendment would allow those 21 and older to “use and possess cannabis.” But it wouldn’t go into effect until July 2023, after lawmakers have crafted rules for its use, possession, distribution and taxation.

House Speaker Adrienne Jones says it’s important to “get the input from Maryland citizens” first.

“We've done polling that shows that a majority of Marylanders support legal cannabis and we're going to put it on the ballot for the voters to decide,” she said.

Meanwhile, a House panel headed by Luke Clippinger, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is working on the details. House Majority Leader, Eric Luedtke, of Montgomery County, says there are a lot of sticky issues to work out; who gets licenses to sell it? Can you grow it in your home? How do you deal with driving under the influence?

Assuming the referendum is approved, they would “be implementing a framework for legalized cannabis in Maryland” in the 2023 session, he said.

The Senate, however, is preparing to lay out all the details in one bill, a regulatory scheme to go along with a referendum.

Senate President Bill Ferguson says it would be unfair to put the simple question of whether to legalize marijuana before the voters without letting them know what legalization means, what the program would look like, and what its impacts would be.

“And that can only happen if we do the heavy lifting of figuring out a regulatory system, making the investments in ensuring that we have an equitable approach to any revenues that come in reforms to the criminal justice system related to legalization,” he said.

Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, says there must be rules on how licenses are distributed and how much effort is put into repairing damage done to the Black community by the war on drugs and the over incarceration of Black people for marijuana offenses.

She called it a “targeted effort to infuse these areas with profits, resources, money and opportunity from what the state is able to get from the legalization.”

And she predicted many lawmakers, especially members of the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus, would reject legislation that didn’t have those provisions.

“We’re not interested in passing legislation just to pass it,” she said. “We want to make sure that there's equity written into it.”

But Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Republican leader, dismissed the referendum as a political stunt.

“I think they believe that it's a way to get people out to the polls that will vote for them,” he said. “We were elected to do our job and not go to the polls every time and say, you know, do you like this? Do you like this?”

Still, says Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat and House parliamentarian, it’s important to put this type of issue on the ballot. She recalled marriage equality and referendums that affect undocumented immigrants.

“And it's been really powerful to be able to go back and say the voters directly requested and asked for this.”

There’s little doubt each chamber will pass its version of the marijuana measures. The question is, can they work out their differences and get it on the ballot in November.

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