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Lawmakers say path to marijuana legalization may go through referendum

If voters were to approve the legalization of recreational marijuana, it could take another year or two after that before it becomes a reality. Lawmakers then would need to write regulatory rules and to deal with criminal justice issues. (AP File Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In less than a year, Marylanders could be asked to vote to approve legalizing cannabis for adults, but they may be asked to do so without knowing exactly how their decision will be implemented.

The General Assembly will take up the issue during the 2022 session. A plan in the House would forgo a straight up-or-down vote in favor of a referendum that let’s voters make the call on legalizing marijuana. That plan, however, may not flesh out how the state handles licensing or related criminal justice issues.

“At a bare minimum we will be putting cannabis legalization on the ballot,” said Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s and sponsor of a bill earlier this year that would have legalized recreational use for adults 21 and older. “I expect it to pass.”

That bill included a framework addressing licensing, taxation, and criminal justice issues without the need for amending the Maryland Constitution.

A similar bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Brian Feldman. Both measures ultimately died in committee.

“We saw some of the resistance to a straight-up legalization bill,” said Feldman. “The referendum is an option. Where I think there’s a difference between the Senate and the House at present is if we’re going to have a referendum I think there’s a sense among several of the senators that we should have some type of a companion implementation bill that goes along with it that would kick in if the referendum passes, as opposed to simply having a referendum as we did with sports gambling and no companion bill, and you basically delay having a program up and running for a year, two years three years.”

A bare-bones referendum would mean that lawmakers would have to come back in a future session to flesh out licensing, taxes and criminal justice issues, including whether to allow expungement for past marijuana offenses.

“Will we put it on the ballot and say as of the day this passes the crime of personal possession is evaporated or is that even going to take three additional years to enact that policy before we issue licenses?” asks Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Lewis and Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said a referendum might also contain language ending arrests for marijuana possession if voters approve the ballot question.

“Will we put it on the ballot and say as of the day this passes the crime of personal possession is evaporated or is that even going to take three additional years to enact that policy before we issue licenses?” said Moon.

Feldman is working with Democrats and some Republicans on his committee as well as the Senate Budget and Taxation and Judicial Proceedings committees to develop a companion bill to the House referendum. The bill, which might be based on both Feldman’s and Lewis 2021 effort, would focus on frameworks for licensing, social equity, criminal justice reforms and taxing the expanded industry.

“We’re going to have to deal with all these issues anyway,” said Feldman. “Why not get going now?”

But finding consensus between the House and Senate on a companion bill could be difficult.

“I think once we get a consensus between the two chambers we ought to be able to move quickly,” said Moon. “The question is how quickly can we get that consensus?”

Earlier this year, House Speaker Adrienne Jones formed a 10-member marijuana legalization work group.

“The speaker’s commitment to have a referendum on this issue in 2022 makes it very important that now we are more definitively moving in this direction,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chairman of both the House Judiciary Committee and the speaker’s work group. “It does change the tenor, and it certainly brings more focus to the conversation.”

Jones expressed reservations about encouraging use of the drug. Even so, she made the referendum part of her Black equity agenda. She said she would support a bill that would place the issue before voters in the 2022 election and vowed the House would pass such legislation.

‘At a bare minimum we will be putting cannabis legalization on the ballot,” says Del. Jazz Lewis, D-Prince George’s and sponsor of a bill earlier this year that would have legalized recreational use for adults 21 and older. (The Daily Record/File Folder)

Public opinion polls in Maryland continue to show majority and even bipartisan support for making the recreational use of marijuana legal.

Six in 10 people support or strongly support legalizing marijuana for adult use, according to a recent Goucher Poll. The October survey represented a small decline from the high-water mark of support seen in March. Even so, support for legalization has remained consistent over the last five years.

A referendum requires amending legalization of recreational cannabis into the Maryland Constitution. The approach is similar to that taken by state lawmakers in 2007, when the first slot machines were authorized.

How legalization is implemented would be dealt with in a future session.

Clippinger, the leader of the work group, said a longer approach might be warranted.

“What the speaker asked the work group to do is continue to look at what the structure will look like over the next year,” said Clippinger. “We’re going to start work right now, but we hope to have legislation passed in the 2023 session regarding the structure.”

Several other states regionally — including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia — have all moved toward legalizing recreational use.

“They each are approaching it in a slightly different way, and we have a lot to learn from those different states,” said Clippinger.

“I think we’re right to take our time to make sure that we get this as close to right as we can,” said Clippinger. “To do that, we need to do the work over the next year with an eye toward passing the enabling legislation in 2023.”