The legalization of recreational marijuana appears to be a long shot in 2019, but lawmakers heading to Annapolis say this year could be important in setting the table for the future.
The General Assembly will have plenty of cannabis-related issues to mull over, including efforts to expand the 2014 decriminalization law and to establish rules for how medical cannabis dispensaries can advertise to the public. Legalization, however, will continue to draw a large amount of attention with a new round of bills. Supporters, including the chairman of a key Senate committee, say the state is getting closer to making it legal to buy the drug.
“It’s definitely going to happen,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and a lead sponsor of past legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana. “It’s just a matter of when and how. Is it going to be a referendum, or are we just going to do it.”
“By and large, I sense (lawmakers) will sense that the politics have shifted and it’s not so controversial any more,” said Moon.
Other cannabis issues
The continuation of the debate over legalizing the drug will be just one part of larger legislative focus on cannabis issues.
Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he expects bills on a variety of issues, including increasing the amount of marijuana that could be possessed that would result in a citation rather than arrest from 10 grams to roughly an ounce.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a vocal opponent of changes to the decriminalization and de minimis possession efforts, said attempts to expand the law to an ounce are premature and would face stiff opposition from law enforcement.
“That’s a lot of marijuana,” said Shellenberger, who then urged a reporter to Google pictures of an ounce of the drug. “I don’t think (the law) needs tweaking. I think that’s going to far.”
“When you start getting to 30 grams, you’re clearly potentially getting beyond personal use,” the prosecutor said.
In the Senate, marijuana issues were once shared by the Finance and Judicial Proceedings committees. This year Judicial Proceedings will likely handle the bulk if not all of the bills.
Zirkin said he also expects debate on bills that could open the door for area medical institutions to conduct research on the the drug as well as to address concerns from the medical cannabis industry regarding proposed regulations that prohibit advertising.
Zirkin, a supporter of legalizing marijuana, agreed with Moon and others that legalization is likely in Maryland but was not willing to commit to a timeline.
“I think we’ll get there sooner or later,” said Zirkin. “I don’t know if it will be this year, next year or maybe the year after.”
Before the state is ready, Zirkin said, many details need to be resolved.
Zirkin pointed to an early December decision by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to propose regulations that prohibit most advertising as an example.
“I think they got that wrong,” said Zirkin. “They’re doing the best they can, and we left things silent when we should not have. We’re the policymakers, and the General Assembly should be making these calls.”
Legal in 10 states
Michigan in November joined nine other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana.
Two others on the East Coast are also considering legalization. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the issue one of his top priorities. In New Jersey, lawmakers are still considering a package of bills that would legalize the drug and expunge the criminal records of people convicted of related drug offenses if they have no convictions over the last decade.
“Most people support it,” said Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and incoming vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “The (state’s) policy should adjust to that reality.”
In Maryland, voters are growing more comfortable with the idea of legalizing the drug. In September, a poll by Goucher College found nearly two-thirds of those surveyed supported or strongly supported recreational marijuana legalization, an increase over previous polls.
Legalization brings with it tax revenue and the possibility of additional money to pay for what is projected to be a proposed $4.4 billion increase in state aid for public education.
Medical cannabis has already reached the $100 million annual sales mark in Maryland. Moon said that figure alone is an indicator of the revenue recreational marijuana could bring to the state.
“With each new iteration of the bill, more and more legislators come to my office with ideas on how to spend the money,” Moon said. “People are already beginning to spend that money mentally.”
Of those jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana all but Vermont have done so via a referendum.
But in Maryland, there are no voter initiatives except to challenge a law passed by the legislature. A referendum would require a change to the state constitution, which in turn requires a super majority in the House and Senate and voter approval.
The effort would be similar to what the General Assembly did a decade ago when it voted to legalize slot machine gaming by putting it in the state constitution.
And while top state officials such as Gov. Larry Hogan and House Speaker Michael Busch have expressed some support for the idea of a referendum — an effort that could give lawmakers political cover much the same as the gaming vote did — it comes with its own complications. The biggest of those complications is that once the program is enshrined in the constitution it’s more difficult to make changes because each tweak could require voter approval.
And some lawmakers say marijuana doesn’t deserve to be in the state’s constitution.
“I don’t think that just because it’s a challenging issue we should put it in the constitution,” said Zirkin. “We get elected to make decisions like this.”
But Zirkin wasn’t willing to take a hard stand against such an amendment, saying he could be swayed by the “will of the body.”