Bills intended to lift prohibition against cannabis were introduced in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly last week.
If passed, the legislation would open the door for recreational use of marijuana by certain age groups, allow for limited cultivation, alter the allowable quantity threshold and generate the automatic expungement of past cannabis possession and cultivation convictions.
Sen. William C. Smith Jr. and Del. Eric Luedtke, both Democrats from Montgomery County, introduced companion legislation that would make cannabis legal for adults age 21 and older; substitute the term “cannabis” for the term “marijuana” in certain provisions of law; and establish a cannabis regulation division in the state comptroller’s office to create a system for regulating and taxing cannabis for adult use.
Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) filed a constitutional amendment that would allow those 21 and older to use cannabis, possess up to 1 ounce, cultivate up to six cannabis plants and share a certain amount of cannabis. The proposed amendment is worded not to prohibit or conflict with certain employment policies or to authorize certain driving conduct.
Similar bills have been introduced in previous sessions, but failed to pass. This year, Democratic lawmakers are more optimistic.
Medical marijuana is legal in Maryland.
But, Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) said, full legalization is “just not ready for prime time.”
“It took the state five years to get medical cannabis up and running,” Morgan said, adding, “there’s not a lot of data on the detrimental effects of recreational” marijuana.
“It would behoove us to figure out what the effects are before we go ahead and legalize it,” Morgan continued. “I would be voting against it, [but] I don’t see that passing.”
If approved, the bills could go to referendum next election, allowing Maryland residents to vote on them, which is how Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) said he’d like to see the legislation passed.
“All the data suggests, at least what I’ve seen, that it is less dangerous than alcohol,” Crosby said.
“You can either pay for it on the front end, or pay for it on the back end,” Crosby said, referring to the taxpayer dollars used to process citizens charged with marijuana possession “through the criminal justice system.”
Along with lessening “the burden in the criminal justice system,” Crosby said his support is also predicated on the potential “to bring another cash crop to our farmers,” as well as the state revenue that could be generated by taxing recreational marijuana.
“Drug dealing does make money,” Morgan said. “I have no interest in making Maryland the largest drug dealer on the East Coast.”
According to a Feb. 6 news release from the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition, nine states have enacted laws regulating and taxing marijuana for adult use. Vermont and Washington, D.C., enacted laws making marijuana possession and cultivation legal for adults, and are now considering proposals to regulate commercial production and sale.
“The state has a lot of demands, from infrastructure to the Kirwan commission to cleaning up the bay,” Crosby said of other legislative priorities. “All these things require money. This is a revenue stream that hasn’t been utilized … that could go to paying for those things.”
The Kirwan commission is a state commission tasked with making recommendations to improve Maryland schools. The group is expected to drop a funding formula in the budget next year for how state and local governments should divvy up contributions to public school systems, and approved a plan last month that would increase public school funding by $3.8 billion a year.
“If you earmark those dollars for education, it provides that [funding] mechanism,” Crosby said.
“There’s always revenue that’s supposedly enriching our lives,” Morgan said. “It was just a few years ago that gambling was passed … do you notice a difference in the school system?”
Gambling, which passed under former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration in 2008, was sold to Maryland voters as an education funding source, but its contributions to the state’s education trust fund are not tied to the growing revenues in gambling. That funding can also legally be redirected for other government programs.
Del. Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert) declined to comment on the marijuana bills “until I actually read it,” he said.
Some county officials weigh in
Calvert County Commissioners’ President Thomas “Tim” Hutchins (R) said proponents will argue that if it were legalized, it could be better controlled, but he disagrees.
“You’re not going to be able to separate what is grown and what is criminally sold,” Calvert’s board president said.
Hutchins, a former superintendent of the Maryland State Police, said marijuana is a schedule 1 class narcotic and that “regardless of what someone does in the next state over, Maryland should hold its ground.”
The former House delegate also warns that marijuana is readily subject to have other drugs mixed in with it, such as synthetic drug PCP, which he said is often sprayed on marijuana.
But legalizing adult use would “bring the drug above board,” Crosby said. “If it’s sold by a licensed distributor, it’s less likely that it’s laced with something or another product is injected into it.”
St. Mary’s County Commissioner John O’Connor (R), an officer with the Seat Pleasant Police Department, said, “I’m not an advocate of the full legalization of marijuana. I think that we have a long way to go. Our criminal justice system is already having a hard enough time adapting to the current changes, and we need to take some time to ... see what the long-term effects are going to be.”
O’Connor proposed a state bill in December on behalf of Charlie Mattingly, owner of medical dispensary Southern Maryland Relief in Mechanicsville, to reduce the age of cannabis growers from 21 to 18, as Mattingly sought to establish a growing facility in St. Mary’s. But that bill did not gain the support of the St. Mary’s board of commissioners.
“I’m not opposed to the industry on that aspect. It’s very well regulated, well secured. ... There’s a process in place that has been thoroughly vetted,” O’Connor said.
As far as what a rollout of recreational cannabis could look like in St. Mary’s, O’Connor said it’s “not something we’ve even looked at” as a board.
Charles County government has been actively preparing for the state’s shifting tide on marijuana, especially medical marijuana.
“We have been, and the county in general has been, welcoming of medical cannabis,” Marcia Keeth, deputy director for Charles County’s Department of Economic Development, said. Keeth said Charles was one of the first counties to add medical marijuana to land use maps to determine in which zones the industry could take place, with limitations, and that from the beginning, the county has treated the growing of it as an agricultural use.
Charles County currently has three dispensaries and one processing plant, but there are no growers in Charles, nor in the Southern Maryland region. “We would very much love to have a grower in Southern Maryland — we’d be real happy to have one in Charles,” Keeth said.
Keeth would not speculate on the impact of a change in law allowing for recreational marijuana use, leaving the policy making to the county commissioners. “Our job is to implement policy,” Keeth said.
Staff writer Tamara Ward contributed to this report.