ANNAPOLIS — The leaders of a legislative panel that could determine the future of legalized recreational marijuana in Maryland say they are leaning against putting the issue before voters.
Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, and Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the as-yet-to-be-named panel will have a number of complicated issues to sort out. The personal preference of each of the joint chairs is that writing marijuana into the
Maryland Constitution should be avoided.
Dumais, House majority leader and the former vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the panel will undertake a deliberative process that could result in a bill that does not rely on a referendum vote.
“I think that after this deliberative process, legislators will be able to do this,” said Dumais. “It does concern me that there are so many things written into our constitution that I do not consider part of what should be a four-corners constitutional document.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said earlier this year that the legislature could pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would put the issue of legalization before Maryland voters in 2020. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said legislators should vote directly on whether to legalize the drug and not punt the issue to the electorate.
Zirkin and Dumais, in separate interviews, questioned the need for a referendum vote and whether or not it would complicate making changes to a recreational industry should it become legal in the state. The state legalized gaming by writing it into the constitution. But that move has made it difficult to adjust to changes such as expanding legalized gaming to include sports betting, which was made legal last summer by the Supreme Court.
“I don’t think these types of things belong in the (state) constitution,” said Zirkin. “The constitution should be for things like freedom of speech, freedom of association, education is big enough go in there. I don’t think marijuana falls into that category.”
Dumais and Zirkin and their committee will examine the issue of recreational marijuana and what tax and regulatory framework should be in place before the first legal joints are sold in the state.
“You can’t snap your fingers and have the industry all of a sudden be legal without there being checks and balances,” said Zirkin.
Lawmakers will have to determine not only who can grow the drug and where it can be sold but also how it is taxed, licenses and regulated. The General Assembly will likely also wade into areas of drugged driving, housing law, and workers compensation, and how legal recreational use will be affected by federal law, which still considers the drug illegal.
“There’s a million questions to be answered, and I don’t think it’s going to take a short amount of time to answer them,” said Zirkin. “I don’t think we can leave (the law) silent and leave it up to the courts. The courts will be inundated with cases.”
There is no clear timeline on when these issues will be decided.
Dumais said recreational marijuana in Maryland could be as close as a year or as far away as the 2022 elections if the issue does have to go on the ballot.
One consideration that could drive a faster effort to legalize the drug is the nearly $4 billion annual cost of a plan by the Kirwan Commission to expand education funding.
“It’s no secret that’s part of it,” said Dumais. “I’m not sure we have a real appetite to raise taxes, although I’m not saying that’s off the table. This is one of the last pieces we might consider.”
Neither Dumais nor Zirkin would commit to a timeline for when the committee could complete its work.
“In the meantime, we should be moving toward decriminalization as much as possible,” said Zirkin. “I don’t think we should be jamming people up in the court system as we work through these issues.”