The Democratic leadership of Maryland’s House of Delegates last Thursday introduced a bill to legalize cannabis for adults. The measure, House Bill 837, would legalize possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis for adults and create an equitable path to cannabis legalization, according to the sponsor of the legislation.
The bill is contingent on the passage of a marijuana legalization referendum planned for Maryland’s November general election. Last summer, Democratic House Speaker Adrienne Jones expressed her support for such a vote and established a legislative workgroup to study issues related to cannabis legalization.
House Bill 837 was created as companion legislation for House Bill 1, the cannabis legalization ballot question planned for the November election. The legislation is based on the findings of the House Cannabis Referendum Workgroup, which began working on a legalization plan in September.
“While I feel strongly that the voters should decide this issue, it is the General Assembly that is charged with making sure we have a legally defensible, equity-driven plan in place should they choose legalization,” Jones said in a press release on February 3.
The legislation was introduced by Democratic Delegate Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He also chaired the House Cannabis Referendum Workgroup, which focused on the public health, criminal justice, regulatory and business implementation aspects of cannabis legalization.
“Marylanders deserve to have their voices heard at the ballot box on the question of legalization, but we cannot move forward without an implementation plan that addresses our immediate priorities,” said Clippinger. “With this legislation, we will be prepared with a comprehensive policy that creates the best, most equitable path to legal recreational cannabis, should voters say yes.”
Maryland Bill Includes Legalization and Expungement Provisions
House Bill 837 would legalize adults’ possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis. Possession of more than 1.5 ounces and up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis would be charged as a civil offense rather than a criminal misdemeanor. The bill would also automatically expunge the criminal records of those with a single conviction for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Additionally, those currently in state prison or county jail for low-level cannabis convictions would be eligible for resentencing and an end to their incarceration. Clippinger said that the legislation would help create a more equitable criminal justice system.
“Fueled by the war on cannabis, our current laws have disproportionately led to the arrest and criminalization of people of color,” Clippinger wrote in an op-ed that was recently published by the Baltimore Sun. “The companion legislation to House Bill 1 will work to end these disparities within our justice system.”
Under the bill, a disparity study would be conducted to create an equitable regulatory structure and identify barriers to entering the legal cannabis industry. Additionally, the legislation would establish a Cannabis Business Assistance Fund to help owners of small cannabis businesses owned by women, members of minority groups and those adversely impacted by marijuana prohibition.
“This analysis will enable the legislature to determine what measures would be appropriate to ensure maximum participation for these communities to partake in the growing, distribution and sale of cannabis,” Clippinger wrote. “An equitable regulatory policy is simply not legally possible without this analysis and the information it will provide.”
Lawmakers in the Maryland Senate are also working on a plan to legalize cannabis in the state. Sen. Will Smith, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee chair, said that a detailed cannabis legalization plan will have to be in place before legislators approve the ballot question for this year’s general election.
“We will not send this to a referendum without having a clear idea as to what things look like in terms of the actual regulatory framework,” Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said. “The regulatory framework has to be sussed out before we send it to the voters.”