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Lawmakers eye earlier lessons as they pursue marijuana legalization

“Other states have experienced obstacles in their policy and implementation process for their cannabis programs. This legislation responds to those missteps to ensure we get our program right to the best of our ability,” says Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore city and chair of the House panel. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

ANNAPOLIS — The chair of the House Judiciary Committee vowed Monday that Maryland would learn from the mistakes of other states that legalized recreational marijuana. 

Included in those cautionary tales is how Maryland rolled out its medical cannabis program. Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chair of the House Judiciary Committee called the state’s early efforts “a debacle.” 

Clippinger is leading the charge on efforts to pass a ballot initiative that, with voter approval, would enshrine recreational cannabis use into the state constitution. 

“While the promise of a perfect policy cannot be guaranteed, it’s our obligation to draft, consider and pass legislation that delivers comprehensive and effective results for all Marylanders,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “Other states have experienced obstacles in their policy and implementation process for their cannabis programs. This legislation responds to those missteps to ensure we get our program right to the best of our ability.” 

House Speaker Adrienne Jones announced last year that she intends to make legalization a top priority in the current session. She intends to do so through a proposed constitutional amendment, much the same way the state legalized slots, casino gaming and ultimately sports betting last year. 

Jones also created a work group led by Clippinger, to review issues that will need to be resolved later, if voters approve the referendum. 

The effort is meeting with some resistance from the Senate, including from Senate President Bill Ferguson, who has questioned the need for voter approval in the face of public support. 

A Goucher poll late last year found more than 60% of voters in Maryland remain supportive of legalizing the drug. More than 60% of Democrats and independent voters both support those efforts. Republican support sits at 48%, according to the poll. 

“I’m a bit perplexed as to why we’re all of a sudden doing this by constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “There’s been legislation almost my whole time in the General Assembly to legalize marijuana.” 

Hough, speaking during a live event sponsored by The Daily Record, theorized that politics and a coming gubernatorial election drives the desire to put the issue on the ballot. 

Hough called it “election-year politicking where maybe this benefits the Democrats because they think they can get young, progressive voters out. It’s just a terrible idea to put it in the constitution. If you want to pass a bill to legalize it, do that.” 

The Senate is working on a separate parallel track to legalize the use of marijuana, which is still illegal at the federal level. Many of the legalization bills will go through the Senate Finance Committee, but key criminal justice components must pass through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. 

“A whole panoply of issues exist. It touches nearly every aspect of society,” said Sen. Will Smith, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee 

Smith said he was “optimistic we’ll make significant progress” in 2022 but stopped short of promising passage. 

“In the Senate, what we’ve said is we will not move forward (with a constitutional amendment) unless we have a framework set in place first,” said Smith, speaking at The Daily Record event. “That’s kind of important to outline and put out there. We want to make sure we’ve dealt with a lot of these regulatory and criminal issues before it goes before the voters.” 

Clippinger, in a companion bill, seeks to allay some of those concerns with House Bill 837. The bill is companion legislation to Speaker Jones’ bill that only takes effect if voters approve the ballot question. 

Some worry Clippinger’s bill pushes off establishing a framework for taxing and licensing growing and processing the drug. It also delays decriminalizing possession, under certain amounts, until 2023. 

In New Jersey, delaying those decriminalization efforts far after voters approved the referendum resulted in confusion and thousands of possession arrests. 

“With this bill it is our intention to tackle our top priority: To address the overwhelming disparities that affect people of color, especially Black and brown people throughout Maryland,” Clippinger said. 

His companion bill bars criminal charges for possession up to 1.5 ounces. Still some civil possession charges would be imposed for slightly larger amounts. 

And those changes wouldn’t take effect until the summer of 2023, months after voters approved legalization. 

The bill calls for the expungement of possession charges and resentencing of others still serving prison time. It also calls for studies on use, driving under the influence and prenatal effects. 

Clippinger’s bill also calls for disparity and other studies to determine the “barriers confronting black and brown communities” in entering the industry and “ensure maximum participation” in those communities. ‘ 

“We need to learn from our mistakes of the past because we cannot repeat the debacles of the rollout of Maryland’s medical cannabis licenses,” he said.