Capital News Service – With the Maryland House of Delegates having passed proposals to legalize recreational cannabis, the Senate has taken up the issue with a decidedly different focus.
While bills in the Senate are also aimed at making recreational use legal, they want to make it profitable.
The Senate Finance Committee is discussing a pair of bills (SB692/SB833) that would allow the state to collect tax from recreational cannabis processors and dispensaries.
Both bills would legalize cannabis for personal use, set regulatory and taxation guidelines for commercial sales, establish funds to repair communities negatively impacted by criminalization of the drug and allow those convicted of cannabis possession to ask to have their records expunged.
Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of SB833. He laid out a series of goals for the legislation.
“We want to divert cannabis sales out of the illicit, unregulated market, and we want to tax it,” Feldman said in a committee hearing, Thursday. “We want to invest millions and millions back into the communities most adversely affected by previous enforcement policies and create economic opportunities with diversity and inclusion very much in mind.”
As of January 2022, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow recreational cannabis. In some states, like Colorado, cannabis can be sold commercially. According to Colorado officials, recreational cannabis grossed over $2 billion in sales in both 2020 and 2021 and more than $12 billion total since 2014.
In other locations, like the District of Columbia and Virginia, cannabis cannot be sold commercially. It can be used personally and can be gifted in limited amounts.
The sponsor of the other bill, Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, said a vital part of any cannabis legislation should be to repair the harm done to minority communities that have been disproportionately affected by arrests and incarceration for cannabis offenses.
“Maryland needs to make ending the mass incarceration of Black people a priority,” Carter said during a Zoom press conference Thursday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “The faux war on drugs has caused harm to marginalized populations. My bill is a proposal that will begin to repair that harm.”
The bills in the House outlined a path to making recreational cannabis legal, but did not authorize commercial sales of the product. One House bill calls for a November referendum by voters for an amendment to the constitution that would make recreational cannabis legal. If approved, the law would go into effect in July 2023. The second bill legalizes cannabis for personal use and allows those convicted under previous possession laws to ask for their records to be expunged.
The sponsor for the House bills, Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, said there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding legalization, but the main concern for him was getting the referendum passed.
Sales and taxation, Clippinger said, in an interview with Capital News Service after his bills cleared the House, were issues to be considered later.
“That’s the next step, that’s what we need to do in the 2023 legislative session,” he said.
Those issues need to be dealt with now, Feldman said. Holding back those decisions until next year could delay the recreational cannabis market for years to come, missing an opportunity to make tangible changes.
“These issues about the marketing, the licensing, social equity, where the money goes, those issues are going to be the same in January 2023,” Feldman told CNS. “So, why not work on it this year to try and get sales out of the illicit market and where we can tax and redeploy that money into impacted communities.”
In a press conference Friday, Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, said that focusing on the potential profit from legalizing cannabis ignores why the drug should be legal in the first place.
“The basis of moving forward should not be on the money.” Ferguson said. “What’s most important is that we end the war on drugs that has been decimating to many communities, particularly Black and brown communities. Whether there’s a revenue impact, that’s a corollary on the back end. That’s not the driver for doing it.”
Capital News Service reporters Logan Hill and Stephen Neukam contributed to this story.