A legislative panel assembled to study the legalization of recreational marijuana in Maryland began work last Wednesday, laying out plans to draft a referendum ballot measure for next year’s general election. The working group of 10 members of the Maryland House of Delegates is tasked with creating a plan to legalize cannabis for use by adults while addressing the harms created and perpetuated by the failed War on Drugs.
“This work group will establish the legal framework necessary to fully implement the legalization of marijuana and learn from the mistakes that other states have made before us,” Delegate Luke H. Clippinger, the chair of the House Cannabis Workgroup, said at Wednesday’s virtual meeting of the panel.
The bipartisan legislative group was appointed by House Speaker Adrienne Jones in July. She said then that she would like to see a cannabis legalization referendum on the ballot for the November 2022 election.
“While I have personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization,” Jones said at the time. “The House will pass legislation early next year to put this question before the voters, but we need to start looking at changes needed to State law now.”
The group will study issues related to cannabis legalization including the licensing and oversight of businesses cultivating, processing and retailing recreational marijuana. The panel also plans to discuss the expungement of previous marijuana convictions, social equity measures to address the harms caused by prohibition and ways to encourage equitable representation in the cannabis industry.
“The speaker has been clear with me that we will do this with an eye towards equity and in consideration to Black and Brown neighborhoods and businesses that have been historically impacted by cannabis use,” Clippinger said.
Ensuring Racial Equity in Legalization
The work group heard from John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow on governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who has researched cannabis policy. He said that fully addressing the harms of marijuana prohibition is a complex issue, noting that cannabis policy has always been discriminatory.
“That wasn’t accidental; it was by design,” Hudak said.
Hudak cited data from the ACLU that shows that Black folks in Maryland are more than twice as likely as white people to be arrested for a cannabis-related crime, despite similar rates of use among the two groups.
“The war on drugs, and, and really the war on cannabis, specifically, sits at the heart of the ability of a system to persecute by prosecuting, particularly people of color, in creating the types of racial inequities that we see institutionalized throughout the United States,” he said.
Pointing to Illinois, New York and New Jersey as examples of cannabis legalization plans that were created with racial equity in mind, Hudak recommended what he characterized as a three-pronged approach to reform. In addition to expungement of low-level cannabis offenses and ensuring inclusive ownership in the industry, Hudak noted that those states also included investment in social infrastructure including education, childcare and job training as part of their legalization plans.
“That’s an important step again to reverse the effects of the war on drugs, and to recognize that the laws that were in place for decades were not just discriminatory, but they were devastating for many individuals and the communities from which they hail,” said Hudak.
But Hudak also noted that cannabis legalization by itself is not enough to end arrests for marijuana offenses, saying that broader reforms are also needed.
“Part of that conversation… also has to include work within law enforcement agencies, work on policing, work on community policing—work on issues that I know this legislature is taking up in the context of police reform in a variety of areas beyond drug policy,” he said. “But there’s no better place to have that conversation than in the conversation around marijuana legalization.”