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Government & Politics

Ahead of Expected Referendum, House Leaders Offer Marijuana Legalization Plan

Workers at gLeaf Medical tend to plants in a grow room at a medical marijuana facility in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury.

The chairman of a key House committee introduced recreational marijuana legislation on Thursday, offering a multi-pronged implementation plan that could ease tensions with the state Senate.

House Bill 837, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore), would allow Marylanders to possess to up 1.5 ounces of cannabis for recreational use.

It would automatically expunge the conviction of anyone previously found guilty of simple possession if that charge was the only one against them. Anyone currently held in a state prison or local jail for a cannabis conviction would be eligible to be resentenced to end their term of incarceration.

Clippinger’s bill was seen as an attempt to bridge a split over strategy — between House leaders who supported a narrowly-tailored voter referendum on the issue this November, and Senate leaders eager to lay the groundwork for the legalization of marijuana during the current legislative session.

“While I feel strongly that the voters should decide this issue, it is the General Assembly that is charged with making sure we have a legally defensible, equity-driven plan in place should they choose legalization,” said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) in a statement.

Said Clippinger: “Marylanders deserve to have their voices heard at the ballot box on the question of legalization, but we cannot move forward without an implementation plan that addresses our immediate priorities.”

“With this legislation, we will be prepared with comprehensive policy that creates the best, most equitable path to legal recreational cannabis should voters say yes,” he added.

A Goucher College poll conducted in February 2021 found that two-thirds of Maryland residents who responded supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use, suggesting that a referendum likely would be successful.

Other states that have legalized and taxed marijuana have created a lucrative industry in the process, but Maryland lawmakers feel burned by the manner in which their state’s medical marijuana and sports wagering industries have unfurled, with deep-pocketed companies gobbling up most of the business.

The House bill would create a Cannabis Business Assistance Fund that would “assist those disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws and support business incubators, educational programs at HBCUs and more,” Jones’ office said in a news release. It would also require a disparity study to “identify barriers to entering the industry.”

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) called the Clippinger bill “an encouraging starting point for discussions” between the two chambers.

“The Senate President has been clear on this. Without having a regulatory framework in place, we’re not going to send this to a referendum,” Smith said. “The House initially said ‘we’ll do a referendum and figure out the rest later.’ It appears that the House has moved toward developing a semblance of a framework, which is encouraging.”

Clippinger’s bill would also require a study to collect data on use patterns, incidents of impaired driving, and public health impacts. And it would create the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council which would study and make annual recommendations regarding impacts on young people, addiction, misuse, infant development, advertising, labeling, and quality control of legal cannabis.