Maryland took another step toward legalization of recreational marijuana Wednesday with the preliminary passage of two bills in the House of Delegates.
The House package includes an amendment to the state constitution. A second bill, if passed, takes effect if voters approve legalization in a referendum in November.
The House preliminarily approved both Wednesday following more than an hour of debate. During that debate, Republicans attempted to amend both bills. The near straight party line votes on those amendments gives an indication of the overwhelming support in the House.
The constitutional amendment, sponsored by House Speaker Adrienne Jones, is similar to how the state legalized gambling.
Del. Jason Buckel, R-Allegany and House Republican leader, sought an amendment that would allow some counties to opt out of legalization.
“Diversity also means that sometimes people live in a part of the state do not agree with you about things that are fundamental and inherent to them,” said Buckel. “They do not want to come and force their viewpoint down your throat and they ask that you no force your viewpoint down their throat.”
To amend the state constitution, a majority of voters in November would have to approve. Buckel’s proposed change would have allowed counties where a majority of voters opposed legalization to opt out.
“Our concerns, our considerations of each individual county are different,” said Buckel. “We just ask you to respect that.”
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of adult recreational use. Buckel said some rural Maryland jurisdictions might want the drug to remain illegal in their areas.
Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Buckel’s approach creates other problems.
“What if one county approves it and the other counties don’t? What if you live on the border between Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, particularly inside the Beltway?” said Clippinger.
“It creates confusion,” he said. “It puts more people at risk of being incarcerated and that is not what we’re trying to do by offering this (constitutional) amendment to voters.”
Another proposed amendment would have required any ballot question to notify voters that the changes do not take effect immediately. Jones’ bill, if approved in November, would not take effect until July 1, 2023.
Clippinger said such a requirement was unnecessary. House Democrats rejected the proposal.
Clippinger’s companion bill bars criminal charges for possession up to 1.5 ounces. Still some civil possession charges would be imposed for slightly larger amounts. 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. ‘
The proposal also allows for adult sharing of the drug and for home growing of up to two plants.
The majority party also roundly rejected amendments including: increased penalties for public use of the drug to match the public consumption of alcohol; restrictions on edible forms of the drug similar to medical cannabis to make them less appealing to children; and expanding the ability of police to search vehicles based on the odor of marijuana.
Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said one of his primary interests in legalization “is getting these non-violent crimes off the books.”
An amendment to the state constitution requires a three-fifths majority in each chamber. In the House, that amounts to 85 of 141 members. In each case, no fewer than 88 Democrats voted to reject seven amendments offered by Republicans.
The change is expected to prove popular with voters.
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.
The bills could come up for final approval in the House as soon as Thursday and move on to the Senate. The 47-member chamber is working on its own marijuana legislation.
The House and Senate agree on the concept of legalization. A rift exists between the two chambers on the approach.
Senate President Bill Ferguson and other top Democrats are not as enamored with a constitutional amendment. They worry that future changes will prove as unwieldy as changes to gaming law
Additionally, there is a push for companion legislation laying out how to implement the new law including licensing and taxes as well as resolving some criminal justice issues including expungements. Ferguson and Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, worry that a lag between the November vote and a later effective date could lead to a spike in marijuana arrests similar to what happened when New Jersey legalized the drug.