Lawmakers Begin Work on Pot Legalization: ‘This Is Really, Really Complicated’

On the same day that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed legislation making his state the 11th to legalize the use of marijuana, a group of state lawmakers meeting in Annapolis began the process of sorting through the issues that face Maryland as its leaders contemplate joining that list.

“This is really, really complicated,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore), the co-chairman of the Marijuana Legalization Workgroup, at the end of a nearly two-hour briefing Tuesday.

While he stressed that the bipartisan panel he leads with House Majority Leader Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery) is not beginning its analysis with any predetermined outcome in mind, it is broadly expected that the workgroup will have a set of recommendations — and perhaps formal legislation — to present to the General Assembly by the time the legislature reconvenes in January.

“(We want) to really get a sense of trying to understand this complicated issue, as best as possible, with the idea that by the end of the year there will potentially be something reported out, but there’s no clear lines of what that would be,” Ferguson said in introductory remarks.

Among the issues to be fleshed out, Ferguson said in an interview, are the impact marijuana legalization would have on public health and safety, how to handle cases in which people have been convicted of marijuana possession in the past, and how to allocate the revenues that would flow from sales tax collections.

Colorado, a pioneer in marijuana legalization, took in $244 million in 2018, bringing its total take since 2014 to just over $1 billion.

The work group’s deliberations ramp up as the Kirwan Commission, which has focused on improving classroom achievement, continues to struggle to find funding sources for its multibillion-dollar recommendations.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has traditionally favored legislation that would make pot legal. The late Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who served as House Speaker for 17 years until his death in April, insisted on a voter referendum.

Among the unknowns heading into 2020 is which approach new Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) will favor.

“It’s hard to look at this as something other than a process that ought to lead to a bill,” said Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery), a marijuana reform advocate. “I think that’s about as much as we know.”

The workgroup received detailed briefings Tuesday on the nation’s history with marijuana laws and the state’s history with medical cannabis.

Social justice advocates say it is imperative that any legalization scheme include relief for people convicted of marijuana possession in the past.

William C. Tilburg, head of policy and government relations for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, told the panel that blacks and whites use pot at about the same rates, but African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for illegal possession.

“My criminal record is in Texas, but I live in Colorado, and yet my record can still bar me from employment,” said A.J. Dawson, who is working with the group Maryland Marijuana Justice. “It’s important to us to see that in Maryland we get it all right.”

“We’ve learned from all the states that have gotten it right and from the states that have gotten it wrong,” he added.

“We can’t keep ostracizing people from society, from participating, just because we’re cannabis users and we got caught when it was illegal,” added Kris Furnish, the group’s cofounder.

The number of Maryland residents eligible to use cannabis for medicinal purposes is expected to exceed 70,000 by year’s end, and annual sales are expected to top $200 million, Tilburg said.

The state takes in nothing from this activity because drugs are exempt from the state’s sales tax.

Several lawmakers signaled that they want to make sure that opportunities to grow, process and sell marijuana in Maryland flow to a diverse group — not just whites and not deep-pocketed players from out-of-state.

Among the other, more sundry, issues to be resolved, is how firms involved in marijuana sales would handle large amounts of cash, since the possession of the drug remains a federal crime, making federally-chartered banks leery of accepting deposits.

In signing marijuana legislation in Illinois Tuesday, Pritzker said, “Legalizing adult-use cannabis brings an important and overdue change to our state, and it’s the right thing to do. This legislation will clear the cannabis-related records of nonviolent offenders through an efficient combination of automatic expungement, gubernatorial pardon and individual court action.”

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