Marijuana plants grow at a secured growing facility in Washington county, N.Y., May 12, 2023. Photo by Hans Pennink/AP.
Marijuana plants grow at a secured growing facility in Washington county, N.Y., May 12, 2023. Photo by Hans Pennink/AP.

As Maryland’s foray into legalized cannabis nears the one-month mark, some local government leaders are dissatisfied with the state framework that they say doesn’t account for local zoning needs and fails to provide counties with sufficient revenue.

Some council members in Howard and Baltimore counties, along with the head of the main lobbying and advocacy group for Maryland county government, have reiterated that the state’s new recreational marijuana law is problematic and should be changed.

Citing unclear zoning regulation and a revenue structure that allows Maryland counties to receive only a fraction of a percentage of the state sales tax on marijuana, Michael Sanderson, the executive director of Maryland Association of Counties, as well as Howard County Council Member Deb Jung and Baltimore County Council Member David Marks, expressed reservations about the current legislation.

Sanderson said he would welcome an opportunity next year to rework the current law.

“I think if we had a sense if there were an open opportunity for stakeholders to make their case, if they (state legislators) said they wanted to hear what things should be ‘ratcheted and clanked’ from last year’s bill, I think we would raise both of these issues – some clearer language on zoning authority, and a more reasonable share to local governments from the tax revenue,” Sanderson said.

He said the association was frustrated with the new law as it turned out this year.

“Whether there’s going to be another bite at the apple, I don’t know,” he said. “But it was frustrating.”

As it stands, Maryland counties now receive a small portion of the total sales tax percentage. From the total 9 percent of the sales tax, counties receive one twentieth of that amount. So if a consumer buys $100 of marijuana product at a dispensary, $9 will go to the state and a county will get just about 45 cents in tax revenue.

Howard County Council member Deb Jung, who represents District 5, had stronger words.

“We’re the ones that are going to have to hire extra police,” she said. “We’re the ones that are going to get more noise and odor complaints that we are going to have to deal with. The police will have to deal with driving under the influence. That all takes local financial resources. (It’s) ludicrous.”

David Turner, director of communications for Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, replied to the Fishbowl via email regarding the new marijuana law, pointing out additional local funding streams from the law.

“In addition, 35% of the tax revenue is distributed directly to counties (including Baltimore City) to fund community-based organizations and initiatives that assist low-income communities and areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” Turner said. “The allocation is made based on cannabis arrest data, benefiting those communities most that were most harmed by the war on drugs.”

He also referred to zoning regulation in the law.

“The Cannabis Reform Act passed as emergency legislation by the General Assembly establishes a state licensing process for cannabis businesses. Political subdivisions (county and municipal) may assess reasonable fees and zoning requirements on these businesses.”

In its own statement, the Baltimore County executive’s office seemed to indicate they saw room for improvement with the law.

“We appreciate the General Assembly’s efforts to quickly and efficiently establish a legal framework ahead of the July 1 implementation deadline,” an email reply stated. “As the County focuses on effective implementation of this new law, officials will carefully review local impacts, ensure sufficient support for our obligations and identify opportunities to refine and improve existing provisions in collaboration with state leaders in the years ahead.”

Other than tax revenue, another area for improvement county stakeholders see is in the zoning mandate. The law simply calls for “reasonable zoning,” which might be interpreted differently by different jurisdictions some contend.

“I think the zoning side of this is still pretty murky in my view,” Sanderson said. “For the most part, it’s local Maryland governments that decide where certain activities or businesses can get cited. We, generally speaking, have the right to do that through zoning policy. The bill created a new standard that said we can subject these licenses to reasonable zoning…no one knows what that phrase means.”

Baltimore County District 5 Council Member David Marks replied in his own email that, while he didn’t think addressing the new Maryland law was a priority for the Baltimore County Council, he too had concerns.

“Candidly, I am concerned less about the revenue aspect of cannabis legalization and more about the inability of local governments to regulate where they are placed,” he wrote.  “My understanding is that local governments have next to no control over the location of these facilities.”

At least two Maryland counties are working to do what they can to have more influence over recreational marijuana sales in their backyard. Howard County created both a cannabis workgroup and cannabis advisory panel on July 5, to see what opportunities might exist to effect policy.

Prince George’s County is working on zoning that would restrict dispensary locations to at least 2,500 feet from any school or daycare center.

To many in Maryland county leadership roles, their oversight of marijuana remains a bit hazy.

State lawmakers “did their best,” Sanderson said. “We’re not thrilled with the outcome.”