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The opening shots in the drive to legalize cannabis

Brett Levin / Flickr / Creative Commons

The legislative drive to legalize recreational cannabis in Maryland during this General Assembly session opened Monday with supporters of two House of Delegate bills arguing they would help right past wrongs.

Opponents, however, warned in a House committee hearing they would only lead to more trouble.

The first bill is a simple state constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational cannabis for anyone over 21. It would have to be approved by three-fifths votes in the House and Senate and at a referendum in November.

The second is a sweeping bill that lays out requirements for studies and creates a cannabis business assistance fund to help small, minority and women owned businesses. Del. Luke Clippinger, the bill’s sponsor, said it provides the first step to building a licensing structure to encourage minority owned businesses.

“We need to learn from our mistakes of the past,” he said, “because we cannot repeat the debacle that took place during the rollout of Maryland's medical cannabis licenses.”

Lawmakers came under fire after creating a medical cannabis program for not guaranteeing minorities could get into the business.

Clippinger said he couldn’t guarantee a perfect policy, but that lawmakers would pass legislation that he hopes will deliver comprehensive and effective results for all Marylanders.

“Other states have experienced obstacles in their policy and implementation process for their cannabis programs,” he told the committee. “This legislation responds to those missteps to ensure that we get our program right to the best of our ability.”

Supporters pointed out that 18 states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia already have legalized recreational cannabis.

Sylvian Quinton, of the Maryland Prevention Works Coalition, called the public health fund in the bill a balanced and equitable response to mass incarceration, but said she wanted “a clear prevention statement” in the bill.

“Prevention is restorative justice,” she said “At present, there is zero general fund support for substance abuse prevention.

Dr. David Gorelick, a psychiatrist who has done extensive research in substance use, said he supports the social justice and social equity aims of the bill, but called for tighter public health regulations.

“I think there are likely to be harmful unintended consequences from cannabis legalization,” he said. “These can include increased cannabis use by minors, increased rates of cannabis use disorder and related medical and psychiatric conditions.”

Olivia Naugle, of the Marijuana Policy Project, worried about the gap between the time a referendum might be approved, November this year, and the time the bill would go into effect, July of next year.

“This delay would mean thousands of Marylanders, disproportionately Black Marylanders, would continue to be subjected to police interactions and citations for cannabis for eight months after voters adopt legalization,” she said.

Dayvon Love, of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a Park Heights based activist group, argued the bill should be scrapped because it does not eliminate criminal penalties for possession with intent to distribute large amounts of cannabis.

If that doesn’t change, he said. “It'll be used in the way that law enforcement has always used.”

“These kinds of charges against Black people in the name of public safety with an ineffective strategy in terms of dealing with it.”

Luke Niforatos, the executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a Northern Virginia based group, told lawmakers that the idea that legalizing and regulating marijuana would solve law enforcement problems was fase.

He said in his home state of Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, more than 50% of the sales are on the black market.

“We have new cartels that have moved in, that are buying suburban homes, gutting them and turning them into grow houses,” he said. “Law enforcement has never had to spend more money on the marijuana problem than they have since they legalized it.” 

The House bills are likely to be heavily amended before they get out of committee. Meanwhile, the Senate bill, a more expansive state constitutional amendment, is scheduled for a hearing in March.

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