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Senate Panel Approves Cannabis Legalization; No Action on Referendum Yet

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The Senate Finance Committee approved a measure Tuesday that would add Maryland to the growing list of states that have legalized small amounts of cannabis. The measure would take effect only if voters approve a related ballot question this fall.

The bill would make it legal for people 21 and older to possess “personal use” amounts of marijuana and would allow households to cultivate up to two plants. It also would require the state to release some people who have been jailed for marijuana-related offenses and to expunge those convictions from their records.

Senate Bill 833, sponsored by Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery), is similar to a bill that passed the House in February, but there are differences that must be ironed out.

The finance panel did not take action on House Bill 1, which would establish the November referendum.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told reporters that he expects disagreements between the two chambers on the legislation to be resolved by the end of the week. Because this is an election year, lawmakers will have the opportunity to override vetoes by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) only if the bills reach his desk by the end of this week.

“We may or may not run out of time,” said Feldman, vice-chair of the finance panel.

The Senate has wanted to create as much of a cannabis-legalization framework as possible this session, before a referendum.

“It’s been the Senate’s position that — if we are going to take it to the voters — that they should know what they are voting for,” Ferguson told reporters. “The conversations that have been happening between the chambers… have been very productive and I think we’ll see something move later this week.”

If the referendum is approved and Marylanders vote to legalize cannabis, the measures being crafted by state lawmakers would create a two-phase process. Starting Jan. 1, 2023, possession of small amounts of cannabis would be subject only to a civil citation. As of July 1, 2023, small amounts — less than 1.5 ounces — would become legal.

The measures also would create a fund to help non-white and female-owned businesses compete in the marijuana industry. Another fund — the Reinvestment and Repair Fund — would help those who were prosecuted for possessing small amounts of cannabis.

“We did want to get rid of mass incarceration of non-violent folks who in the past have been going to prison for small possessions of cannabis,” said Feldman. “That’s a big part of what we did here.”

Committee Democrats supported the measure. Republicans opposed it.

It’s unclear whether Hogan, a potential 2024 White House hopeful, would approve cannabis legalization. He cannot veto a measure creating a referendum, which must pass the legislature with a three-fifths majority.


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Senate Panel Approves Cannabis Legalization; No Action on Referendum Yet