Adult-Use Cannabis in Maryland

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Legalization, Inclusion, and Restoration: Is Maryland Ready?

New leadership in Congress is forming a federal legalization plan for 2021. It’s likely that federal cannabis laws will be reformed to a certain degree but unlikely that full legalization will take place in its 117th session. Maryland has two separate bills to legalize cannabis for adult use, “Cannabis – Legalization and Regulation (Inclusion, Restoration and Rehabilitation Act of 2021)” (HB32) and “Cannabis – Legalization and Regulation” (SB708) in its 2021 legislative session. Maryland’s 442nd General Assembly now in session is laying down a regulatory framework for Congress to follow.

Scaffolding for Regulation

The more common pathway for a state to launch an adult-use program is to begin with the regulatory scaffolding a medical program affords. Legalization requires that the respective state legislators consider several key issues as well as opportunities that legalization presents including the economic benefits derived from industry taxes and licensing. Both Maryland bills share what every new cannabis program, medical or adult use, should address: social equity and criminal justice.

The House Bill is pretty clear in its intention, inclusion, restoration and rehabilitation. The first sentence of each requires substituting the term “cannabis” for the term “marijuana” in certain provisions. Bravo to both! Although marijuana is part of our vernacular and the term used in several state laws and throughout federal law, it’s a pejorative term intended as a racial slur founded in the first anti-cannabis and outdated U.S. drug policy launched in 1937.

Tools for Success

Inclusion of a social justice and equity program is an opportunity to be carefully considered. Inclusion of a social equity program which encourages and enables full participation by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by bad federal and state policy including cannabis prohibition and enforcement is one of the best ways for a state government to fulfill its responsibilities to its electorate. A Social Equity Program (SEP) can provide education; technical assistance; access to capital and tools for success in any cannabis industry to support communities of people who are lacking these tools for success in a new industry.

Both bills address a significant barrier to the cannabis industry, access to capital. HB32 and SB708 call for the establishment of the “Social Equity Start-Up Fund” along with the “Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund”. These funds underscore the need for restorative justice to the communities disproportionally affected by the War on Drugs.

In the Interests of Justice

Criminal justice is addressed in each with the expungement of criminal charges. From HB32, an application for expungement is considered if “… doing so (expungement) would be in the interests of justice, in light of the elimination and education in penalties associated with cannabis-related conduct and past racial disparities in the enforcement of cannabis laws.”

In 2020, Maryland House Bill 83 required all court records and police records relating to certain charges of possession of cannabis to be automatically expunged if the possession charge is the only charge in the case. A Democrat House majority overwhelming supported the bill 116 to 15. Republican Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill. An estimated 200,000 minor cannabis convictions would have been shielded as a result of the legislation, greatly benefiting Marylanders who are often prevented from gaining employment or discriminated against in the hiring process because of cannabis charges.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson is a sponsor of SB708 and Chair of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus Delegate Darryl Barnes is the sponsor of HB32. Legislative leadership is behind legalization, how about the rest of the legislature? Will legalization, inclusion, and rehabilitation pass in Maryland in 2021? Pressures are upon the legislature to first address the financial and economic impact of COVID19 upon Maryland’s municipalities and its citizens. If not passed in 2021, Maryland legislative leadership has done an excellent job of laying the foundation for cannabis policy that is just.

Jacquie Cohen Roth is Founder/CEO of CannabizMD and its sister social enterprise Tea Pad. Cohen Roth is a member of the first cohort of Masters of Science in Medical Cannabis and Therapeutics of The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (2021).