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Election 2022 Health Care Justice

Black activists and political leaders mobilizing to make cannabis legal in Maryland

Kevin Ford Jr., right, chats with Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore after a roundtable discussion Oct. 6 at Mary & Main, a medical cannabis dispensary in Capitol Heights. Photo by William J. Ford.

Kevin Ford Jr. works to educate Marylanders on how the cannabis industry can bring positive changes to Black and brown communities, whose families have historically been harmed by inequities in marijuana prosecutions.

Ford serves as executive director of Uplift Action Fund Inc., a super PAC that recently began a get out the vote campaign urging support for the statewide ballot question that would legalize recreational cannabis use.

His organization seeks $30,000 to spread the word through social media, digital ads and other forms of communication. According to a recent campaign finance filing, the PAC has raised $3,600 so far.

Ford is among many Marylanders who use cannabis for medicinal purposes.

“Helps with my migraines. Keeps the pressure in your head really steady,” said Ford, who consumes cannabis by smoking and cooking in foods. “I’m a multi-faceted consumer. The biggest part of that is I consume and still live my daily life and being a man and taking care of my responsibilities.”

Ford isn’t doing this work alone. He’s receiving some advice from his godfather: former Prince George’s County Executive and two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rushern L. Baker III.

Baker’s consulting firm, Baker Strategy Group, serves as an adviser to Uplift, which utilizes the former county executive’s College Park work address.

“Even as Maryland’s medical cannabis industry continues to struggle with minority participation, the legalization of adult-use cannabis is a critical step toward righting the injustices of the war on drugs,” Baker said in a statement. “These communities hardest hit need to be recompensed in some way from legalization, but in order for that to happen, we must fully engage ourselves in the legislative process.”

The state ballot question known as “Question 4” asks: “Do you favor the legalization of the use of cannabis by an individual who is at least 21 years of age on or after July 1, 2023, in the State of Maryland?”

Various polls say “yes,” including a poll released Thursday that showed 69% of voters plan to vote in the affirmative.

The poll taken Sept. 11-19 by Victoria Research and Sojourn Strategies found four of the state’s biggest jurisdictions overwhelmingly supporting legalization: Prince George’s County at 65%; Montgomery County at 68%; Baltimore County at 74%; Baltimore City at 83%.

Uplift Action plans to focus its attention on where the majority of Black residents reside in both Baltimore jurisdictions and in Prince George’s and Charles counties, located in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

“Part of this is to educate what exactly this means when we vote for legalization,” Ford said. “Most people don’t know what the actual implications are…that affect everyday Marylanders.”

‘A thoughtful way’

If the measure passes next month, Maryland would join 19 other states that have legalized recreational cannabis use. Here are some of the requirements in an accompanying law that passed through the General Assembly this year, which renames marijuana as cannabis:

  • The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission must conduct a comprehensive study of the cannabis market. There have been complaints about inequities in the awarding of licenses for years, but an analysis prepared for the commission two years ago found evidence of “no bias or undue influence in the 2019 medical cannabis application review process.”
  • At least 30% of revenue from adult-use cannabis must be reinvested for community-based initiatives in areas historically affected by cannabis convictions.
  • A person convicted for single possession of cannabis can petition to have a record expunged.
  • Possessions of small amounts of cannabis up to 2.5 ounces would become a civil offense in January. However, a person cannot possess up to 1.5 ounces until July.

Activists pushed in this year’s General Assembly session a measure that would have prohibited police officers from searching a person based on the smell of cannabis. It didn’t pass.

The ACLU of Maryland notes in 2018, Blacks were more than two times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

Krystal Oriadha, the only Democratic nominee with a Republican opponent in next month’s general election for a seat on Prince George’s County Council, said changes in current policy or new laws implemented “must be done in a thoughtful way.”

“The policy that the legislative body pushes [must be] holistic and make sure that Black and brown communities are not affected by this,” she said. “Make sure it is holistic such as what President Biden did with the pardons; making sure it is equitable in accessing wealth. Can’t do what has been done in some states and not help the communities that have [been] affected the most.”

Oriadha serves as a co-founder of the local activist group called PG Changemakers, which will host a town hall Tuesday in support of Question 4.

The discussion will feature Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored legislation last year that incorporated similar measures Uplift and other cannabis reform advocates support. However, the bill didn’t make it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

“Every year, 19,000 people are arrested simply for possession. It’s a waste of my, and your resources,” Lewis said in an Oct. 5 video posted on the PG Changemakers’ Instagram. “I’m for ending prohibition because I’m a father [and] I’m a son. I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next generation. We can do it right now by voting yes on Question 4. End cannabis prohibition in the state of Maryland.”

Committee spends over $100K to pass the measure

Meanwhile, the Yes on 4 Committee, the principal campaign entity working to pass question 4, reported raising $106,220 between Aug. 24 and Oct. 9 and spending $112,555 during that period. The committee — whose formal name is MD CAN ’22 Inc. — previously reported spending $27,275 between May 16 and Aug. 24.

Almost all of the contributions to the campaign committee in the most recent reporting period came from cannabis-related businesses, including $50,000 from SunMed Growers in Earlville, $25,000 from Curio Wellness in Towson, $25,000 from Green Thumb Industries in Chicago, and $5,000 from Peake Releaf in Rockville.

Curio Wellness also reported $15,800 in in-kind contributions, paying for outdoor signs supporting the ballot measure, while the Marijuana Policy Project provided $26,000 in in-kind contributions to organize events in support of the initiative. Earlier this year, Trulieve Medical Cannabis Dispensary in Rockville reported a $50,000 contribution to the campaign committee.

The lion’s share of reported expenses include payments for video production, graphic design, mailers and consultant fees. The committee, which also paid for the poll that was released last week, had $16,488 in the bank as of Oct. 9.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that an analysis of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission’s application process showed no bias.