Legalizing Marijuana, Other Pot Proposals Await Action In Maryland General Assembly

Photo Credit: JACK GUEZ

Pot is hot for Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis this year.

The General Assembly is considering more than two dozen bills on marijuana — or cannabis, as the substance is called when used as a medicine.

For marijuana enthusiasts, full legalization for recreational purposes is at the top of the wish list. Bills in both the House and the Senate would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to let voters decide whether to replace prohibition with a system of regulated sales and taxation.

Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project, said voters are ready to decide the issue.

“It’s an election year. It’s an incredibly popular issue with the public,” Bell said. “But lawmakers seem to be lagging behind.”

To pass, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate and then by voters. The governor may not veto it.

The legalization amendment would allow people 21 and older to grow and use marijuana. The Senate held a hearing on it last week. The House has scheduled a hearing next month.

Legislative leaders are warning enthusiasts not to get their hopes up. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is on the record as supporting legalization, but is unlikely to move forward unless he’s sure the House will too. The House’s Democratic leaders doubt they have the 85 votes it would take to put the question on the ballot.

“Putting my personal feelings aside, I don’t think that is going to happen this year,” said state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

If legalization doesn’t pass this year, Bell says, her group hopes two decriminalization bills succeed.

The measures, both sponsored by Zirkin, would expand the state’s current decriminalization scheme — in place since 2014 — by making it harder for police to bring felony charges based on possession.

One would nearly triple the amount of marijuana a person could possess without committing a felony from 10 grams to 1 ounce. Another would specify that people found with an ounce or less are not committing the felony of possession with intent to distribute.

Zirkin said police are still charging people with 8 grams of marijuana as distributors because they had the drug in more than one plastic bag. He said that’s not a responsible use of police resources. He said other states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts have set an ounce as the limit.

“We’re on an island alone with the 10 grams,” Zirkin said. He said he couldn’t yet gauge the bills’ prospects, but believed any vote would be close.

Other bills would tweak Maryland’s medical cannabis system. The system started to get off the ground in late 2017 after years of false starts.

Different proposals would:

•Limit the ways in which cannabis may be advertised

•Authorize the use of cannabis for treating heroin addiction

•Allow businesses to deduct cannabis-related expenses on their taxes

•Prohibit employers from discriminating against medical cannabis users.

Republican-backed measures would allow medical cannabis patients to buy guns.

The bills are all in their early stages, awaiting either committee hearings or votes.

Lawmakers are also considering legislation that would increase the number of growers’ licenses and encourage greater racial diversity in the medical cannabis industry, a high priority for legislative leaders after a deal to achieve those ends fell apart at the end of last year’s session. While legislative leaders hoped to get the bill done early in the session, it has languished in a House committee since a hearing last month.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said last week that she’s not worried about the delay. She said the House Health and Government Operations Committee has been taking its time in an effort to accommodate the concerns of her caucus members. She’s optimistic the legislation could receive committee approval this week.

Glenn said she’s been communicating with the two Senate committee chairs who will deal with the legislation, Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, who chairs the Finance Committee, and Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Education, Health and the Environment Committee, and knows of no substantial impediments to passage there.

“Once it gets out of the House, I don’t expect any problems,” she said.

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the House health committee, was a bit more cautious. She expects the bill to go to the floor late this week or early next week.

Pendergrass said she gets nervous when legislation goes too deep into the 90-day session without a resolution. But she’s optimistic the bill will pass.

“With a bill like this, there are always concerns, but I think we’re OK,” she said.