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House gives preliminary approval to bill that would regulate legalized cannabis industry

The Great Seal of the State of Maryland on the front of the Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

The Maryland House of Delegates gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that would regulate and license the budding cannabis industry, defeating attempts by Republican lawmakers to amend the bill with minor changes they argued were necessary.

Economic Matters Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) led the floor fight to defend the bill, which he cosponsored, saying that the legislation was simply a licensing bill that was needed after state voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing cannabis for recreational use, beginning July 1.

Amending the legislation to address matters beyond regulating the new business is outside the bounds of the debate, Wilson said. “That ship has sailed, that train has left the station,” he said.

Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) addresses the House of Delegates chamber during a debate on cannabis legislation Wednesday. Photo by William F. Zorzi.

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) had delayed debate on the bill Tuesday, after the full House approved the favorable report on the bill by the Economic Matters Committee.

The original 88-page House Bill 566 was amended in Economic Matters with 9 amendments totaling 32 pages, most of them technical.

Buckel began Wednesday’s debate by proposing two amendments – one that would allow employers to drug-test for cannabis with impunity, as they do now, and the second to clarify that the legislation is not an endorsement of operating a vehicle or machinery under the influence of cannabis.

“We are legalizing a substance that is federally illegal,” Buckel explained. “We are creating a regulatory framework where a substance for most of us in our life we’ve understood was subjected to criminal prosecution.”

Now, however, “we’re making it something analogous to a liquor store or a cigarette store or a pharmacy,” he said. “That is a somewhat radical idea. It is a somewhat radical step. I don’t mean radical that it’s wrong, or radical that it’s the polar extremes politically; I mean that it’s radical in a sense that it’s … such a deviation from the ways things have normally been conducted that we have to be very careful about how we do it, that we don’t produce unintended consequences.”

One of the problems with regulating the use of cannabis is that there is no test for intoxication, as there is with alcohol – a theme that was repeated by some GOP delegates who sought to amend the bill.

Del. Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore) was concerned with the state overstepping its authority by denying local jurisdictions the ability to establish zoning or other requirements that “unduly burden” a cannabis licensee, and proposed deleting that language from the bill.

“We don’t strip the local government out of the decision-making process for any other industry across the state, except for cannabis,” he said.

Buckel rose to point out that the local liquor laws are left up to local legislators. “Why don’t we treat this like alcohol?”

But Wilson argued back. “We’re trying to avoid all that,” he said. “What you just talked about, the alcohol, that’s what I was talking about on every block in the ‘hood.”

Earlier, citing problems with local liquor license decisions, he had explained the perils of local laws and zoning restrictions.

“In the African American community, there’s a running joke: On every block you find two things, a church and a liquor store,” Wilson said earlier. “So, our goal is to make sure that these zoning regulations don’t [create] that same thing going on with cannabis.”

Del. Mike Griffith (R-Cecil and Harford) proposed amending the bill to delete on-site consumption licenses, referring to such an establishment as a “weed bar.”

Wilson’s No. 2, Del. Brian M. Crosby (D-St. Mary’s), the Economic Matters vice-chair, pointed out that on-site consumption spots would be allowed “only if the local authority approves.”

Del. Nino Mangione (R-Baltimore County) proposed an amendment that would have stripped out a Loan Loss Reserve Account for the state to guarantee loans of up to $500,000 for “social equity” startup licensees, if the lender enrolls the loan in the program.

“The decision to invest state resources in the … illegal drug business that has the potential to harm so many is something I can’t agree with,” Mangione said. “And I really don’t understand why we would want to do that.”

Wilson himself took that question on, striking an almost personal tone in parts.

“Our goal is to get rid of the illicit drug market,” he said, as he often has.

He made clear the need for making loans available to get the legal competition up and operating, small businesses owned by “somebody who has been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.”

But, he said, “You know what’s going to be lacking? Access to capital. Because it is a new industry, it’s a fluctuating industry, and our goal is to get this industry off the ground.”

Wilson then offered a plain-spoken explanation of the “equity” concept behind the bill.

“We want people who actually suffered from the War on Drugs to have the opportunity, to finally benefit, to have some kind of generational wealth that they can pass on to their children,” he said. “Just because they came from poverty doesn’t mean they have to stay there.”

“At the end of the day, if we believe in this, if we believe in upwardly small businesses, minorities, individuals who have suffered for generations from the War on Drugs, then we have to make money available, otherwise they’re just going to sit back and watch people from out of state, people who have millions of dollars already, come in and make money off my people.”

“That is unacceptable,” he said.

The last amendment came from Del. Wayne A. Hartman, (R-Wicomico and Worcester), who proposed to give landlords and homeowner associations the right to prohibit smoking cannabis on private property under their control.

Crosby pointed out that the bill before the House was simply a licensure bill and “silent on a ban” of smoking on certain properties. He did say that other legislation for such bans could be considered by the General Assembly.

The House voted down the Hartman amendment, too.

Earlier, during the committee hearing on the original bill, the hemp industry raised concerns that the legislation would be the death knell for its business, if changes were not made to the proposal. While some committee amendments dealt with an expanded definition of cannabis and excluded hemp products, industry representatives said it did not deal with their concerns.

“There was not a single amendment that helped hemp at all,” said Nicholas Patrick, who owns three stores that sell hemp-related products and founder of Maryland Healthy Alternatives Association. “We are now working our way through the Senate and … looking forward to collaborating with them.

“The stakes are very high for us and the hundreds of businesses that may be shuttered, if this doesn’t get amended,” Patrick said.


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House gives preliminary approval to bill that would regulate legalized cannabis industry