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The Senate takes up marijuana

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Now that the House of Delegates has approved legalizing marijuana in Maryland, the focus shifts to the Senate, where a committee scheduled a hearing Thursday on a more expansive bill.

The House has voted to send a state Constitutional amendment to voters asking whether they approve of legalizing recreational marijuana. They also passed a bill that laid out requirements for studies and penalties for public use.

The Senate bill is a Constitutional amendment as well. It goes beyond the House amendment by including criminal justice provisions similar to those the House passed and goes on to lay out how the drug would be distributed, marketed and taxed.

Sen. Brian Feldman, the Montgomery County Democrat sponsoring the Senate bill, says the House version doesn’t go far enough.

“We, on our side, kind of were of the view that if you're going to ask the voters to vote, maybe they need to know what they're voting on exactly,” he said.

Under the House version, lawmakers would take up the marketing piece in the next legislative session. But Feldman says there already is a lot of money in the illicit marijuana market that the state could put to good use if it had the ability to tax and regulate it.

“And so my bill is basically trying to say that if we're going to pass a referendum, let's sort of get the market going, as opposed to delaying for a year or two years getting to those issues, which are, in all candor, is all a little more complicated than the criminal justice issues.”

And he says Maryland should move quickly because the regional landscape on marijuana is shifting.

“We've got Virginia, New York, New Jersey,” he said. “Delaware, just last week, their House of Representatives passed the legalization bill; Connecticut, you know. So, all these states are moving in the region on actual sale of the product, taxing the product, regulating the product, and then taking all that revenue and directing it back into impacted communities.”

In the House, Republicans tried unsuccessfully to add amendments that would allow local governments in counties that vote against legalization to keep marijuana illegal in their jurisdictions, to toughen penalties for public use and add packaging requirements.

In the Senate, Steve Hershey, a Republican from the Upper Shore, says some of those issues could also arise in his chamber. There will be questions, for example, about public use.

“Are you able to just stand outside of an outdoor restaurant and smoke marijuana,” he asked. “Even if all the customers inside would be able to smell it?

He worried, also, that regardless of how many other states have legalized recreational marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law.

“It's one of the big concerns that we have through a number of things, especially as you look at the state of Maryland,” he said. “Just down the street, we've got the Naval Academy. We have lots of federal facilities, and the question has always been, if Maryland legalizes it, is it legal on federal property?”

Though he says he believes the effort will pass in the Senate, he says he has “great concerns” about legalization.

“Just from the perspective that we've heard many, many times before that it is a gateway drug,” he worried. “That it is something that we want our youngsters to feel that, hey, this is legal now, therefore, they can go and experiment with it.”

Even if the Senate approves Feldman’s bill, it will have to be reconciled with the House version before it can go to the voters. Feldman says he thinks it can be done relatively quickly.

“We could just do a referendum,” he suggested. “We could do a referendum with the criminal justice underlying bill, which I think is very doable. The market issues are more complicated.”

Del. Luke Clippinger, sponsor of the House bills, says he and Feldman have had “initial conversations” about the legislation.

“He's got his hearings coming up and we're going to double back and talk again after that,” Clippinger said. “And we'll start to figure out what our next steps are going to be.”

If lawmakers pass the Constitutional amendment it would go directly to the voters without a stop at Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk.

Clippinger and Feldman say they are confident that voters will approve legalization in November. It’s just a question of finalizing the details.

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