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Maryland lawmakers plan push to legalize marijuana

Madeleine O'Neill
USA TODAY NETWORK

Maryland lawmakers will weigh legalizing marijuana when they return to Annapolis next year amid growing calls for criminal justice reform and shifting stances toward legalization in nearby states.

After years of stalled efforts, advocates are hopeful that 2021 will be the year Maryland legalizes marijuana for adult use.

Delegate Jazz Lewis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, hopes to shepherd the legislation through the General Assembly.

Lewis said his proposal will center on equity and repairing the damage that criminal enforcement of marijuana laws has done to communities in Maryland.

A worker holds up a jar with marijuana offered for sale at a medical marijuana dispensary in Billings, Montana. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

"We decided that we wanted to create the most aggressive and extensive racial equity plan in the nation," he said in an interview.

Lewis said that he decided to push for legalization after he learned earlier this year that he would soon become a father.

As he was considering what sort of world he wanted for his son, protests broke out across the nation in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, strengthening his resolve to address marijuana reform.

“We have a few years to try to correct the American experience for all people,” Lewis said. “Selfishly, for my son, but everyone’s child out there, Black or otherwise, shouldn’t have unnecessary interactions with the justice system that derail their life plans.”

With New Jersey's recent vote to legalize recreational marijuana, there are other pressures at play, too. Maryland residents will soon be only a short drive from access to legal weed — and they'll take their tax dollars to New Jersey with them.

Maryland's neighbor to the south, Virginia, is signaling that it could soon follow.

"I don't think we want to be behind the eight ball in our region on this," Lewis said. "I think we have an opportunity to lead, and we will."

A focus on equity 

Black Marylanders make up a third of the state's population — a much greater proportion than in any other state that has legalized marijuana so far.

That will make racial equity especially crucial to Maryland lawmakers, said Delegate Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore City Democrat.

"The communities that have been most adversely impacted by overpolicing and incarceration related to marijuana possession, they should be at the front of a conversation around where we distribute revenues to strengthen the economic outlook in those very communities," she said.

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Lewis said he worked with several other members of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus to develop the legislation, which is still being drafted.

The forthcoming bill, Lewis said, would leverage medical marijuana growers' enthusiasm to jump into the recreational market to create a source of capital for "social equity applicants" — people from communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization.

Existing marijuana growers in Maryland could expand rapidly to meet demand for recreational pot. By charging them a hefty fee for licenses, Lewis said, Maryland could create a pathway for smaller entrants into the recreational sector.

The funds would also help alleviate the problem of banking in the marijuana industry, he said. Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, many banks are hesitant to work with cultivators, dispensaries and other marijuana-related businesses. 

The Maryland legislation would also include automatic expungement of criminal records for possession of a small amount of marijuana, he said, and would dedicate a significant portion of the revenues from legal weed to communities that have been most affected by marijuana arrests.

A 2013 ACLU report found that Maryland had one of the nation's highest arrest rates for marijuana possession and that Black residents were disproportionately arrested for possession.

This file photo shows marijuana plants.

"We want to particularly target these communities of high need," Smith said. "The pain was not felt evenly. The prosperity needs to be hyper-targeted toward equity to ensure that we don't just continue to ignore communities that have borne the brunt of this crisis."

Smith said it is also critical that lawmakers learn from the rocky process of creating a medical marijuana industry in Maryland.

Sales of medical cannabis began in 2017, several years after lawmakers legalized medical marijuana. The industry faced lengthy delays and legal challenges, and has been accused repeatedly of excluding minority-owned businesses.

The recreational marijuana legislation would try to prevent those problems from the outset.

Though details are still being worked out, Lewis said recreational marijuana would be taxed at a rate that's comparable to the alcohol sales tax under his proposal. Alcohol sales are taxed at 9% in Maryland.

Lewis said he wants to keep the price reasonable so that a legal market will succeed in pushing out illegal marijuana sales. A legal market would also help keep marijuana out of the hands of children, he said.

"I think we've had a false illusion of control by saying that this is illegal," Lewis said. "Who gets arrested for cannabis possession? Young people. The current drug policy has failed, and I think it's high time for us to revisit and reform and move forward."

'A lot of issues to tackle'

Small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized and treated as a civil offense in Maryland since 2014.

Efforts to legalize recreational marijuana have been less successful. Attempts in recent years have failed to make it out of committee in the General Assembly.

A 2019 legislative work group considered legalization, but ultimately declined to endorse legislation for the 2020 session.

Lewis, who was not a member of the work group, said he believed equity was a key stumbling block in 2019.

A 2021 bill is also sure to meet opposition.

Delegate Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican, said he opposed legalizing medical marijuana because he believed it would open the door to recreational pot.

He is concerned that legalizing recreational marijuana could lead to increases in crime and vehicle crashes.

"When the government endorses the drug and says that it's fine, that sends the wrong message to the population, especially to young people," Parrott said.

See the data on legalization:Where recreational marijuana is legal, data show minimal impacts on teen use and traffic deaths

Parrott, who recently lost a bid for Congress, said change must happen at the federal level.

Using marijuana when it's legal at the state level can still have consequences under federal law, such as for security clearances or firearm ownership.

"I believe there could be and probably are some medical benefits," Parrott said. "At the federal level, things do need to change, so they can at least do the research, and then states need to come in line."

Olivia Naugle, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, said she hopes that lawmakers will legalize marijuana in 2021. But the pandemic will pose unprecedented obstacles, she said.

"This legislative session is going to be unlike any other, so meeting with lawmakers is going to be very different, and lawmakers have a lot of issues to tackle," she said.

Naugle has led the Marijuana Policy Project's advocacy efforts in Maryland for the past two years. She believes that New Jersey's vote to legalize recreational marijuana could create a domino effect in nearby states.

The Maryland State House in Annapolis.

As states struggle with falling revenues during the pandemic, the prospect of legalizing and taxing marijuana could be especially tempting.

"The longer Maryland delays moving forward with legalization, the longer the state is going to continue to subject its residents to the harms of prohibition and miss out on a much-needed new source of jobs and revenue," Naugle said.

As of last week, Lewis was working to confirm which lawmaker in the Maryland Senate would sponsor partner legislation. Lewis said he hopes to unveil his proposed bill in early December.

Madeleine O'Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at moneill@gannett.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.