When Marylanders fill out their ballots this year, they won’t only be making their picks for governor, attorney general and congressional representative. They’ll be weighing in on an amendment to the Maryland state constitution that would legalize recreational marijuana for adults.
Question 4 — one of five proposed constitutional amendments that Maryland voters are being asked to either approve or disapprove — asks voters: Do you favor the legalization of the use of cannabis by an individual who is at least 21 years of age on or after July 1, 2023, in the State of Maryland?
If voters say yes, adults 21 and older would be able to legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana — or two marijuana plants — starting next summer. Larger amounts up to 2.5 ounces would be punishable only by a civil fine.
‘If we vote yes, that will change’
Eugene Monroe, chairman of the “Yes on 4” campaign, is spearheading the effort to get Marylanders to vote for the referendum.
Monroe, a former offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens, famously pressed the NFL to remove marijuana from its banned substance list and study its use for pain relief.
“That’s really where my advocacy started — with a push to change the policies in the NFL,” he told WTOP in an interview.
Now, Monroe said, he sees his work pushing for marijuana legalization in Maryland as an opportunity to “create more access” for people to use marijuana and to build an industry that builds jobs and boosts state coffers.
He also says legalization will allow police departments, already stretched thin, to focus on violent crimes instead of policing marijuana.
Even though Maryland decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2016 — meaning it is punished with a fine instead of jail time — Monroe said there were more than 1,000 arrests last year related to marijuana possession.
“If we vote yes, that will change,“ he said. “No adult will be arrested for simply possessing cannabis.”
Monroe said a cornerstone of the legalization effort in Maryland — as in other states — is a focus on racial equity, arguing that criminal enforcement of marijuana prohibition has devastated communities going back decades.
“Marijuana prohibition has inflicted lasting damage upon Black and brown communities across Maryland, and we can rectify some of those issues,” he said.
Under companion legislation already passed by the General Assembly — and contingent upon voters’ approval of the referendum — people currently incarcerated for marijuana possession would be allowed to apply to the courts to be sentenced to time served and — as long as they aren’t serving any other sentence — they would be released from incarceration.
People previously convicted of marijuana possession could also file to have their records expunged — and by July 1, 2024, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services would be ordered to expunge all cases involving marijuana possession before legalization went into effect.
Some critics of full legalization argue decriminalization already goes far enough in addressing racial disparities in enforcement and other critics point to the experience in neighboring Virginia, which legalized marijuana possession in 2021 but still sees wide disparities in marijuana-related arrests.
Decriminalization doesn’t go far enough because people are still being arrested and saddled with records that prevent them from access to housing, education and jobs, Monroe argued.
“Decriminalization is not enough. It’s such a small step, but we can take a bigger leap if we do vote ‘yes’ next month,” he said.
Next step: ‘Safe, legal, regulated economy’
One thing the constitutional amendment doesn’t do is actually set up a legal marketplace allowing Marylanders to buy and sell marijuana. That would require further action by the Maryland General Assembly.
Del. Luke Clippinger, who represents the 46th District in Baltimore City and chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is the architect of the bill that put marijuana legalization on the ballot. He said that, should voters approve the measure, lawmakers are ready to hit the ground running in Annapolis to nail down how legal marijuana will be licensed and taxed in the state.
“We need to create a safe, legal, regulated economy for cannabis that is not driven by organized crime. And the way to do that is to legalize it, to take the jail out of it, and to begin the process to set up legal places where people can buy this substance,” he told WTOP.
He said he believes lawmakers can pass the necessary provisions to get a commercial market up and running by the end of the General Assembly session in the spring.
“We’ve been able to learn from other jurisdictions that have done this,” he said, particularly states that have more recently legalized marijuana such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois. “We can take those lessons and see what they did well, see what they didn’t do well and move from that.”
Some critics of legalization have expressed concern that whatever economic benefits are created by a new marijuana market will go to big players and conglomerates, who would squeeze out small companies.
The Yes on 4 campaign in Maryland is financially supported by companies in the marijuana industry, including Trulieve, an “industry giant” which pumped $50,000 into the effort, according to The Washington Post.
“I think a big question that we will deal with in 2023 is … how can we be sure that we’re making sure that the market is accessible to people across Maryland and at different starting points in the process, and that certainly is a challenge to say the least,” Clippinger said.
Still, supporters point to the Cannabis Business Assistance Fund, another element of the companion legislation, that would provide grants and loans to small, minority-owned and women-owned business owners and to entrepreneurs from communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition and those previously convicted of marijuana offenses.
Mental health harms?
Recent polls have shown Marylanders are likely to overwhelmingly approve the measure.
A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll earlier this month found more than 70% of registered voters support the measure.
Another poll, conducted by Baltimore Sun Media and the University of Baltimore had similar results — 63% of likely voters surveyed said they agreed with legalizing the drug.
But not everyone is on board. There is no organized opposition to the ballot measure, but an online and largely grassroots effort has formed.
Dr. Christine Miller, a neuroscientist, is a science adviser for the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization efforts across the U.S. and criticizes the marijuana industry as akin to “Big Tobacco.”
Miller, who has taken to holding small protests outside medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland, said she doesn’t think enough people know what they’re being asked to vote on.
“I really thought that not nearly enough attention was being paid to educating the public on the mental health harms of marijuana use,” Miller told WTOP. “And so I thought a good way to get it in the face of the public was to stand outside a dispensary.”
While the reputation of marijuana as a largely harmless therapeutic substance is growing, Miller said there are numerous studies from around the world that show a link between marijuana and serious mental health problems.
A 2019 study published in The Lancet found that daily consumption of marijuana, especially highly potent pot, increases the odds of having a psychotic disorder later.
In Denmark, schizophrenia diagnoses associated with cannabis use disorder have doubled since 2000, accounting for 8% of cases, according to research published last year.
“What can I say as a scientist? The data is out there now,” Miller said.
Miller said experiences in other states that have legalized marijuana, such as California, indicate the black market continues booming even after marijuana is legalized, and that once recreational dispensaries open up, “with their wealth of concentrated THC products,” those products often find their way into the hands of young people, she said.
As for social justice, Miller said legalizing marijuana will come with social costs of its own that will disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.
“The development of psychosis, the poor academic achievement — all of these social costs are going to more difficult for underprivileged communities to overcome than for the wealthy white suburbs.”