With a key deadline looming, Maryland Senate approves marijuana legalization measures

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Maryland’s Senate on Thursday took a major step toward making “personal use” amounts of marijuana legal beginning in 2023.

Lawmakers gave approval to two bills that would allow residents 21 and older to possess small amounts of marijuana — up to 1.5 ounces — beginning next year. Possession of between 1.5 and 2.5 ounces would be subject to a civil citation

Anyone caught with a greater amount would be subject to the state’s existing laws on possession with intent distribute, said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), vice chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Households would be allowed to grow two marijuana plants, provided they are inaccessible to passersby and out of public view.

The measures would also permit some inmates who have been convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to petition for their immediate release, and some people who have been convicted of possession could seek expungement of their records.

Senate Bill 833 passed on a voice vote, with final consideration expected on Friday.

The House bill, amended to be identical to the Senate measure, passed on a vote of 30-15, and will head back to the House chamber. One Democrat, Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s), joined Republicans in opposition.

The measures are tied to a third bill, House Bill 1, that would place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot. The cannabis legalization provisions would take effect only if the referendum passes.

Lawmakers are racing to get hot-button bills to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) by the end of the week, so that they can override potential vetoes while they are in session. The General Assembly is set to adjourn on April 11.

The governor cannot veto legislation creating a constitutional amendment, though he could veto the companion bills. He has given no indication whether he supports marijuana legalization or not.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have said for months that they envision crafting some regulations this year and more next year. But one Republican critic, Sen. Stephen Hershey (R-Middle Shore) accused Democrats of “not putting together any meaningful policy legislation regarding this issue.”

“There’s no market structure here. There’s nothing to do with licensing,” he said. “We hardly address health concerns. We don’t touch taxation. And there is no economic impact (analysis).”

Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), a member of the committee that considered the bills, responded: “We will be taking up all of the issues that we just heard when we come back next session.”

GOP lawmakers later sought to convince their colleagues that a referendum isn’t necessary, given changes in public attitudes toward marijuana.

“We’ve seen a public shift on cannabis across the nation,” said Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel). “Why do we feel the need to put it on the ballot and not just — as their representatives — move forward?”

Democrats in both chambers pointed to the state’s use of referendum questions in the past — including on casino gambling, marriage equality and the DREAM Act.

Nineteen states, including Maryland, have legalized marijuana for medical use; 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for personal use.

In many states, legislators were motivated by a desire to regulate and tax pot, to dry up the illegal market, and to create a new source of revenue. In Maryland, the discussion has been driven as much by a desire to end drug enforcement policies that many Democrats and reform activists believe hit younger people and people of color disproportionately.

“If you have these small possession amounts, you shouldn’t be thrown into jail — mass incarcerated — obviously disproportionately folks of color,” said Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery), vice chair of the Finance Committee.

The measure approved on Thursday would also create three state funds — one to help non-white and female-owned businesses compete in the marijuana industry, one to help those who have been prosecuted for possessing small amounts of the drug, and a third that would study the health impacts of marijuana use.

Some of the bill’s provisions take effect on Jan. 1, 2023; others would become law six months later.

Referendum measure clears Senate committee

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday approved and sent to the floor House Bill 1, a measure to establish a marijuana legislation referendum. The vote was 7-4. Benson, the Prince George’s County Democrat, joined committee Republicans in voting against it.

Chair Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) and the remaining six Democrats voted in favor of the referendum.

The full Senate is expected to approve the referendum on Friday. HB 1 cleared the House on a party-line vote on February 25.

On Wednesday, Republicans floated the idea of creating a referendum that did not amend the state’s constitution. Kelley appeared willing to discuss a “pared down” referendum.

In an interview, Feldman called the proposed referendum “a pretty simple yes/no question.”

“I’m not aware of any mechanism that’s in the toolbox along the lines that was described yesterday — and the attorney general has not given us any other option,” he said.

Some Democrats have suggested that Republicans oppose a referendum not on policy grounds but out of fear that it would draw progressive voters to the polls in greater numbers.

Sen. James Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) dismissed that notion, calling it “inside State Circle psychobabble.”

“The polls are overwhelming — and common sense says — that people care about jobs, prices, health care and safety,” he said. “Give me a break.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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