House Panel on Cannabis Legalization Begins Work Toward an Equitable Industry

A House panel exploring how to create an equitable recreational cannabis industry in Maryland met for the first time on Wednesday. Photo from Pexels.com.

A bipartisan panel of Maryland delegates started work toward a establishing a racially equitable adult-use recreational marijuana industry Wednesday at the first meeting of the House Cannabis Workgroup.

But one of the first experts to testify before the legislative panel warned that racial disparities in arrests could persist after legalization without significant reforms.

Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who chairs the workgroup and the House Judiciary Committee, told workgroup members that their main mission is to “establish the legal frameworks” to implement the legal use of recreational cannabis and “​​learn from the mistakes that other states have made before us.”

With an eye towards equity, the workgroup, created over the summer by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), will study issues related to legalization, including:

  • Regulatory licensing and oversight for the production, sale and processing of cannabis;
  • A procedure for the potential release of people currently incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes;
  • Changes to existing criminal statute and traffic laws;
  • Expungement for prior cannabis-related convictions;
  • Fair racial representation in business ownership;
  • The creation of social equity programs to compensate neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs; and
  • The expansion of addiction treatment services.

“The speaker has been clear with me that we will do this with an eye towards equity and in consideration to Black and Brown neighborhoods and businesses that have been historically impacted by cannabis use,” Clippinger said.

Recreational-use cannabis has been legalized in 18 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., and a Goucher Poll released in March found that two-thirds of Maryland adults are on board to become the 19th.

Clippinger said that the House will pass a measure to create a referendum on the 2022 general election ballot.

The workgroup is meeting prior to the start of the 2022 session so that, in the case Marylanders vote in favor of legalization, implementing legislation will be ready to be heard in 2023.

Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Finance Committee Vice Chair Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) both sponsored separate pieces of legislation looking to legalize cannabis during the 2021 legislative session. Neither bill made it out of their respective chambers.

‘A system to persecute by prosecuting’

Dr. John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said that cannabis laws in the United States have been discriminatory from the jump.

“That wasn’t accidental, it was by design,” he said.

From the 1920s onward, cannabis was seen as a political tool to malign certain groups, including Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, Black people, hippies, beatniks and Jewish people: “a whole variety of groups who were seen as both … quote-unquote ‘problems in society’ and cannabis users for whom public officials at the state and federal levels could vilify and use cannabis laws to hold down,” Hudak said.

That campaign, which is commonly known as the “war on drugs,” marginalized whole sects of the American population, with the largest impact felt in Black communities.

Hudak said this issue is “particularly true in Maryland.”

Citing the ACLU, Hudak said that, in Maryland, Black people are 2.2 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related crimes than white people.

“The war on drugs, and, and really the war on cannabis, specifically, sits at the heart of the ability of a system to persecute by prosecuting, particularly people of color, in creating the types of racial inequities that we see institutionalized throughout the United States,” Hudak said.

He used New York, Illinois and New Jersey as examples of approaching adult-use legalization through a racial justice lens. He called their tactic a “three-pronged approach”:

  1. Record expungement for low-level, nonviolent, cannabis-related offenses for people who have been convicted or are being held pre-trial;
  2. Providing ownership and business opportunities in the cannabis industry for Black and Brown residents;
  3. Investment in social structures, like education, childcare and workforce training, in impacted communities.

“That’s an important step again to reverse the effects of the war on drugs, and to recognize that the laws that were in place for decades were not just discriminatory, but they were devastating for many individuals and the communities from which they hail,” said Hudak.

Asked what would change if adult-use cannabis were legalized, Hudak said that arrests would go down.

But he also said that racial disparities in arrest rates would likely endure — without further reform.

“Part of that conversation … also has to include work within law enforcement agencies, work on policing, work on community policing — work on issues that I know this legislature is taking up in the context of police reform in a variety of areas beyond drug policy,” Hudak said. “But there’s no better place to have that conversation than in the conversation around marijuana legalization.”

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.