The top Democrat in the House of Delegates is throwing her support behind a potential referendum to legalize recreational marijuana in Maryland.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones, who has expressed personal reservations about legalizing the drug, announced Friday the creation of a House work group that will focus on moving the state to a ballot question in 2022. The announcement parallels how the state came to legalize gambling more than a decade ago and shows that Jones, in her second full year as the leader in the House, is willing to move without the Senate on some big policy initiatives.
“While I have personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization,” said Jones. “The House will pass legislation early next year to put this question before the voters, but we need to start looking at changes needed to state law now.”
It’s an issue that may be politically ripe in Maryland as public opinion and racial issues that touch on generational wealth, criminal justice and other concerns are at the forefront of public policy debates nationally and in the state. Jones, the first woman and first Black presiding officer in the history of the state, has made addressing those issues a top priority since becoming speaker two years ago.
The state has seen continuous growth of sales of medical cannabis since the first dispensary opened in 2017. The industry, however, has been plagued by a lack of diversity in ownership of grower, dispensary and manufacturing licenses. Legislative efforts to address those issues have only marginally moved the needle.
Jones would likely want any legalization effort and ballot question to not leave behind Black entrepreneurs, given that community’s experience with disproportionate drug enforcement.
Additionally, public support for legalization has grown over the last five years, according to Mileah Kromer, a political science professor and director of the Goucher Poll. Kromer’s survey in March found 67 percent of Marylanders supported legalization for recreational use by adults, the most since the poll began asking the question.
“I don’t see that declining any time soon,” she said.
That support included 77% of Democrats and 60% of independents and 50% of Republicans — the first time the poll showed marginal Republican support on the issue.
“It would mobilize younger voters, and younger voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Though support for legalization is mostly bipartisan — the strongest pockets of resistance are among Republicans, and Maryland’s only GOP (House) member, Andy Harris, is viewed as hostile to legalization.”
Del. Robin Grammer, R-Baltimore County and a member of the committee created by Jones, said he is open to the potential of legalizing adult recreational use and believes he is not alone in his party. He did, however, express some cynicism about the timing of the effort as it relates to the coming election.
“Here’s the play, here’s why they do this: If you put it on the ballot, it becomes a liberal voter turnout item,” said Grammer. “That’s why they want to put it on the ballot. This is probably going to be a tough year for Democrats and the way to turn every Democrat in the state out is to put this on the ballot. It’s a highly effective, no-cost voter turnout strategy for the Democrats.”
Kromer, however, said that growing Republican support doesn’t necessarily mean that the issue will be one for just Democrats. “But it becomes an issue that every candidate is going to be asked about,” she said.
Jones’ work group is a House venture only. The effort is similar to pushes she made in the last year on police reform, gaming and other equity issues.
“Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already legalized recreational cannabis for adult use,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, said in a statement sent to a reporter following Jones’ announcement. “Maryland must do the same, and a large majority of Marylanders in both political parties support an equitable framework that immediately addresses the injustices in our current criminal justice system. In 2019, I co-chaired the General Assembly’s work group to study this issue and we identified the key decision points and models for legalization in Maryland. The Senate continues to be ready to move a fair, just, and equitable program forward, and we intend to do so during the 2022 session.”
Many in the House and Senate believe the speaker and the House were more successful in imposing their will on some of those top issues than the Senate and Ferguson.
Grammer said the House and Senate will likely work on separate but parallel tracks as the chambers did on sports betting and police reform. The outcome, he said, may hinge on the relationship between Jones and Ferguson.
“They either figure that out or they go to war,” said Grammer. “And what you saw last session was the Senate caved on everything, the parts of police reform that they thought were too far, the Senate just caved on police reform and that parts it thought were bad.”
The full General Assembly over the last five years has discussed and held work groups, many of them involving House and Senate members, to study potential paths to legalization and the potential effects it would have on the state. Some lawmakers who support marijuana legalization hoped that a need for additional revenue to pay for the expansion of education funding mandated by the Kirwan Commission proposals would grease the rails for legalization of adult use marijuana.
Jones’ public support for a referendum could be a catalyst for moving the issue from a policy discussion to a change in state law.
More than a decade ago, then-House Speaker Michael Busch, Jones’ predecessor, softened his stiff opposition to legalizing slot machines in the state and allowed a referendum that ultimately paved the way for expanded casino gaming and now sports betting.
Legalizing marijuana would likely require an amendment to the state constitution as Maryland has no California-style ballot initiative effort where such changes can be done by petition. The effort would likely be similar to how the state legalized slot machines more than a decade ago.
Grammer called that scenario “a nightmare” and “a political punt.”
“I think referendums are the wrong way to do this,” he said. “We shouldn’t be in the business of just putting things on the ballot that are popular. We should either pass it because we believe in it or we should vote no.”
The referendum path has its drawbacks. The process is time consuming and can make the state slow to adapt to market changes because it’s dependent on amending the constitution and gaining voter approval at the ballot box, as happened with moving from slot venues to full-blown casinos. The state also lost nearly three years to competing states who were unfettered in efforts to legalize sports betting following a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.
“Only because the language of the original gaming referendum said future expansions of gaming had to go back to the ballot. That won’t be an issue here,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery as well as House majority leader and a member of the new cannabis workgroup. “Once cannabis is legalized, it’s legalized.”
Leading the 11-member House panel of Democrats and Republicans will be Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
“Cannabis use has had a disparate impact on people of color for too long with no real impact on public safety,” said Clippinger, D-Baltimore City. “This work group will establish the legal frameworks necessarily to fully implement legalization of marijuana and learn from the mistakes that other states have made before us. The speaker has been clear that we will do this with an eye toward equity and consideration to Black and brown neighborhoods and businesses historically impacted by cannabis use.”
In another parallel to gaming, the legislature could follow a path laid out in recently passed legislation meant to provide equity in sports betting licenses. The new law, which largely follows the House position advocated for by Jones, sets aside some licenses for specific businesses, including some that are minority-owned, as well as establishes casinos and off-track betting sites and a limited number of licenses that lawmakers believe will be available for minority owners.
The law, however, offered fewer licenses than the Senate version which essentially would have allowed anyone to obtain a license if they could pass the background check and pay the required fees. Supporters in the Senate argued that not placing a cap on licenses ensured all minority owners would have a shot at the sports betting industry in the state.
“There are some similarities, some differences,” said Luedtke in comparing the sports betting and recreational cannabis legalization efforts. “But we will absolutely be working to make sure minority owned businesses have real opportunities. And to address some of the lingering harms of the drug war. Expungement will be a big part of the conversation.”