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Marijuana legalization inches forward

Joel McCord/WYPR
The House of Delegates

The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a state Constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana for anyone over 21 and a bill that spells out the details.

In the process, Democrats beat back a series of Republican amendments to the amendment and to the bill that includes requirements for studies, penalties for public use and the creation of a cannabis business assistance fund.

Del. Jason Buckel, the House minority leader, tried to amend the Constitutional amendment, to allow local governments in counties that vote against legalization in November to keep marijuana illegal in their jurisdictions.

He argued that if Maryland is opting out of federal law, in which marijuana is still illegal, counties ought to be able to opt out if Maryland legalizes it.

The state, he said, is telling local governments it can opt out of federal law, but they can’t opt out of state law.

“You don't get to opt out, even when it's based on the will of your voters, the will of your voters who expressed in a democratic referendum they don't want this,” he argued. “We're gonna cram it down your throat. That's not fair.”

Del. Luke Clippinger, the sponsor of the Constitutional amendment and the accompanying bill, wondered what would happen if one county approved it and a neighboring county didn’t. What if you lived near the border between those counties, he asked?

“It creates confusion. It puts more people at risk of being incarcerated. And that is not what we're trying to do by offering this amendment to the voters.” 

Buckel also moved to add jail time to the $50 penalty for violating the smoking in public provisions in the accompanying bill. He said he understands the effort to keep people from going to jail for using marijuana “in a responsible fashion” in their homes.

“I understand that. I'm okay with that,” he said. “What I'm not okay with is, this isn't a slap on the wrist, this is a tickle on the wrist. This is ridiculous.

Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the judiciary committee countered that part of the reason for legalizing marijuana is to get nonviolent crimes off the books and to get rid of the inequities between the arrests of whites and non-whites.

“What the minority leader is proposing to do, both through his attempt to make this a local decision where people could keep perpetuating these inequities, and now in this attempt to re-criminalize, is the opposite of what we're trying to do,” Moon said.

Del. Nick Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, proposed an amendment that would require food products that contain cannabis to be packaged in “child proof” containers and forbid them to be marketed to children as candy or snack foods.

“Throughout our country, there is a very sad and growing problem with children getting into their parents' edibles, and it's brought light to the problem of marijuana overdose,” he said.

He told the story of a woman on medical marijuana whose 21-month-old son got into her supply and ate so many he became deathly ill and barely survived, urging lawmakers to “put in place a very strong worded language that protects our children from accidental or inappropriate use.”

But Del. Joselyna Pena-Melnyk, a Prince George’s Democrat, said his amendment was unnecessary because the bill creates an advisory commission to study and make recommendations on advertising, labeling and quality control requirements. And the regulations on medical cannabis are stronger than Kipke’s amendment, she said.

“They require child resistant packaging consistent with federal poison prevention,” she said, correcting Kipke’s phrase. “It's not childproof, that is not the correct wording is child resistant packaging.”

In addition, the regulations “prohibit advertising near schools and daycares,” she said. “They prohibit products that look like food or beverage products. They prohibit animal or human shapes, only circles and squares. They can't market to or target kids.”

The amendments all were defeated on near party-line votes.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill, a more expansive state constitutional amendment that includes many elements of the House bill and more, is scheduled for a hearing next week.

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