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Lawmakers skeptical that recreational pot will pass in session

The future appears hazy for legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland in the coming legislative session.

A 19-member legislative work group has been tasked with taking a deep dive on how Maryland might go about legalizing recreational cannabis as well as issues related to employment, criminal justice, social equity and even the medical cannabis industry.

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. (File Photo)

“When we talked about the numbers, that was pretty eye-opening,” Del. Vanessa Atterbeary said about tax revenues after a trip to Colorado to learn about how legal recreational marijuana works there. ” People were expecting to have large numbers generated, and that just isn’t so.” (File Photo)

Instead of a recommendation for a bill, members of the work group say it is more likely they ultimately will produce a report containing a statement of general consensus on a number of issues, including racial diversity in the industry and expungement of criminal records for at least some convicted of possession charges.

“I think we still have some work to do,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery and co-chair of the legislature’s Marijuana Legalization Work Group.

Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia have broadly legalized adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Most have done so by ballot initiative. Most recently, Illinois became the first state to do so via the legislative process.

But Dumais and other lawmakers in Maryland say a number of complicated issues remain impediments to legalization, including employment, workers compensation, driving under the influence, how licenses would be distributed as well as diversity issues and criminal record expungement.

The Maryland General Assembly has considered a number of bills over the years that would legalize recreational use of the drug

“It’s not a matter of we’ll wave our magic wand and just legalize it,” Dumais said.

A  legalization bill isn’t out of the question in the 2020 session. Dumais and other lawmakers, however, say passage could happen in 2021 or maybe 2022, before the election.

“I would have said a year ago that we were on the verge of having it,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and a member of the work group.

“Given the pace that we’re going, I’d be very surprised if we get a recommendation and a bill out in the next session,” said Moon, who has sponsored legalization legislation in past sessions. “But the session after that is very doable.”

Moon rejected talk that legalization might not happen before the end of the current term in 2022.

“I would resist doing it over that length of time,” Moon said. “I don’t think we’re going to get any magical insight by doing that.”

Despite Moon’s enthusiasm, a number of members of the work group say the effort will take more time.

“It’s been a slow roll, and I think it should be a slow roll,” said Del. Robin Grammer, R-Baltimore County and a member of the work group. “It’s a complicated issue and there’s a lot of value to taking your time.”

Work group’s progress

The work group, despite being formed during the legislative session, was slow to organize and even slower to meet. Most of the work has been done in smaller groups.

The panel has met in full three times, while four subcommittees focusing individually on minority participation, licensing and taxation, criminal justice and health have also met a handful of times each.

A number of work group members said they were unaware of what other subcommittees were working on outside of their own.

Some were hopeful that an expansion of education spending over the next decade would entice lawmakers.

“This is not about the money,” said Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington and a member of the panel.

Serafini, who is also a member of the Senate Budget and Finance Committee, said that the revenue to the state likely won’t amount to much and that it would take several years to determine what a mature market looks like. In the end, lawmakers are left with a number of questions.

“If we’re going to get involved, we’d better know what we’re doing,” Serafini said. “I think two to three years might be aggressive. I think there’s an understanding that, yes, this is going to happen but not at the speed some anticipated.”

The recommendations made by the Kirwan Commission call for $4 billion to be spent over a decade. About $2.8 billion of that will come from the state’s general fund budget.

Cobbling together a plan to pay for it is expected to be a challenge. Legislators wary of the politics of a tax increase are considering a patchwork of options, including sports betting and even the legalization of the adult use of marijuana, sometimes called “pot for tots.”

Fateful trip

Some on the work group said a July trip to Colorado — home of the country’s most mature legal market — may have dulled some of the initial enthusiasm.

“It was eye-opening,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, D-Howard and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “When we talked about the numbers, that was pretty eye-opening. People were expecting to have large numbers generated, and that just isn’t so.”

Maryland is frequently compared to Colorado because both states have similar-sized populations. Colorado generated about $250 million in marijuana-related tax revenues in 2018, according to a study released in August by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Lawmakers acknowledge those amounts could take years to materialize in Maryland, if they ever do, and a chunk of them would be used to pay for related social programs, leaving a smaller portion for education.

“It’s not even enough to build one (Maryland) high school,” said Del. Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel and leader of the House Republicans. “It’s about $100 million after you’re done paying for all the other stuff you need to pay for.”

For Kipke, the trip to Colorado highlighted his concerns about the illegal market — something he said the Rocky Mountain state struggles with but he’d like to curb if not eliminate in Maryland.

“What we learned is that (legalization) is not as simple, and a lot of states have had problems,” Kipke said. “I think Delegate Atterbeary was right, it was eye-opening for me as well. “

The delegation returned from Colorado questioning the future of the work group.

Incoming Senate President William “Bill” Ferguson, co-chair of the panel, said Colorado’s complicated system created by voter ballot initiatives rather than legislative action disheartened some lawmakers on the trip. Ferguson called the Colorado model “a Frankenstein system.”

“It was various pieces of a cannabis system built on top of each other,” Ferguson said. “We saw a complicated system that would be very different in Maryland.”

In the end, members of the panel agreed that they should continue working on the issue, Ferguson said.

A number of lawmakers said the future of legalization could also depend on how leaders in the House and Senate feel about the issue.

“Speaker (Michael) Busch was interested in making it happen and making it happen in the right way,” said Atterbeary, the Howard County delegate. “I can’t speak to what madam speaker’s policy is on the issue. I think, perhaps, she will be supportive of whatever the will of the (House) is.”

New House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, who is personally opposed to legalizing the drug, said in May that she will wait for the work group report and see where her caucus is on the issue. Aides said Jones’ position has not changed.

The full work group’s report is due to the legislature by the end of the year.

Dumais, Ferguson and others say the panel will likely report back on broad areas of consensus  — but not necessarily fine details — including expungement, substance abuse education and the prevention of access by minors.

The panel may also ask for more time to continue its work rather than hand the issue back to individual House and Senate committees.


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