Maryland Senate Speaker Says Voters Need to Know What Marijuana Legalization Would Look Like
With at least five competing cannabis legalization bills in play this session in Maryland, the president of the state Senate weighed in Friday on how he would like to see lawmakers proceed during the remaining weeks of the legislative session. .
The House of Delegates passed legislation last week that would ask voters to legalize cannabis for adults in the state, along with a separate bill that outlines related criminal justice reforms. On the Senate side, two competing proposals have been presented and are pending in committee: one that would legalize cannabis outright later this year as well as another election referendum measure that includes a more comprehensive regulatory regime than is detailed. in the plan approved by the House.
The Senate Finance considered both Senate proposals earlier this week, but did not vote on either bill.
At a news conference on Friday, Senate Speaker Bill Ferguson (D) answered questions from reporters about the competing plans. He said if lawmakers decide to go ahead with a referendum, they owe voters a better idea of what the new system would look like than what his colleagues in the other chamber have provided.
“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Ferguson said of the proposed constitutional amendment to voters. “But what is most important [is] if it goes to voters, they need to know what they are voting on. They should have an idea of what the setting would look like.
“Are we protecting public health? ” He asked. “Are we making sure we end the war on drugs, which has been absolutely devastating to communities, and do it in a way that if an industry moves forward, there’s a fair opportunity to participate in the market?
“I think we can get there this year,” he continued.
Maryland’s legislative session is due to end on April 11.
Last year, Ferguson said he thought lawmakers should skip the ballot altogether and legalize cannabis by law. But he indicated at Friday’s press event that he was warming to the prospect of a voter-approved constitutional amendment.
Ferguson said he thinks all parties in the debate on the way forward “have demonstrated a commitment to compromise and to get there.”
The Senate “feels comfortable” moving forward with legalization without resorting to a referendum, he explained, “but we are open to conversation because we respect the other chamber and the position of the other chamber, and we’ll see where we get to by the end of the sitting.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D), who formed a legalization task force last summer to study the issue, said the decision should be left to Marylanders.
Jones said last year that while she has “personal concerns about the encouragement of marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate impact on criminal justice leads me to believe that voters should have a say in the future of legalization.”
The two pending Senate bills contain much more detail than the House bills, HB 1 and HB 837about how the state would regulate a new commercial cannabis industry. SB 833, sponsored by Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D), parallels many basic provisions of the House, but includes much more detailed detail on licensing, industry regulation and other policy issues. The House plan, by contrast, leaves nearly all the wrinkles to iron out later, should voters approve the basic policy change.
Under constitutional amendments proposed by the House and Senate, legalization would not take effect until July 2023. If passed, an amendment would not require the signature of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Hogan did not approve of legalization but signaled that he might be open to the idea.
Senate bill, SB 692, by Sen. Jill Carter (D), focuses primarily on redressing the wrongdoings of the war on drugs. It would legalize cannabis earlier, in July this year, and establish more permissive limits on possession and home cultivation. It would also ensure greater legal relief for people with previous cannabis convictions.
“Sen. Carter’s bill is the only one that establishes a critical and expansive framework for redressing the racial injustices that have been wrought by the War on Drugs,” Elizabeth Hilliard, Assistant Public Defender and Deputy Director of the Division of government relations from the Office of the State Public Defender, said during this week’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, where members discussed the two Senate bills.
Feldman, for his part, said he did not consider the two bills “to be in conflict” and thanked Carter for his cooperation. He indicated that he wanted to incorporate certain provisions of Carter’s bill, such as overturning previous cannabis-related convictions, into his own proposal through future amendments.
Feldman in the last legislative session was a lead sponsor of another legalization bill co-sponsored by Senate Speaker Ferguson. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the proposal last March, but no vote ultimately took place. This followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal in February.
Ferguson is not a listed sponsor of Feldman’s new proposal.
On the House side, Del. Luke Clippinger (D), who sponsors the legalization bills that cleared the House, said last week that the House’s passage of the legislation marked “the start of an important process where we are beginning to review how we have dealt with this substance, cannabis.
A competing legalization bill on the House side, HB 1342was presented by Del. Gabriel Acevero (D) and must be heard in committee on Tuesday.
Maryland legalized medical marijuana through an act of the legislature in 2012. Two years later, a decriminalization law took effect that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams with a civil fine of $100 to $500. Since then, however, a number of efforts to pursue marijuana reform have failed.
A bill to expand the possession threshold for decriminalization to one ounce passed the House in 2020 but was never taken up in the Senate.
Also that year, the governor vetoed a bill that would have protected those convicted of low-level cannabis from having their records published in a state database. In a veto statement, he said it was because lawmakers failed to pass a separate non-cannabis measure aimed at tackling violent crime.
In 2017, Hogan declined to answer a question about whether voters should be able to decide the issue, but by mid-2018 he had signed a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana system. State and said full legalization was worth considering: “At this point, I think it’s worth taking a look at,” he said at the time.
As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee in 2019 held hearings on two bills that would have legalized marijuana. Although these proposals did not pass, they encouraged many hesitant lawmakers to start seriously considering change.
US Senate candidate Gary Chambers visits a drive-thru marijuana dispensary as part of a follow-up to a smoking ad
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.