Le­gal mar­i­juana un­likely in 2020

Bi­par­ti­san work group look­ing into le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational pot still in ‘in­ves­tiga­tive mode’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Pamela Wood

The holdup

A bi­par­ti­san work group has been study­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of le­gal mar­i­juana in Mary­land. But af­ter con­sid­er­ing the many fac­tors in­volved — from set­ting tax rates to iden­ti­fy­ing drugged driv­ing to ex­pung­ing old con­vic­tions — the group found it still has more work to do. With­out an en­dorse­ment from the group, le­gal­iza­tion is un­likely to move for­ward in the 2020 Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion.

The prospect of le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana use in Mary­land is grow­ing dim for 2020.

While there’s grow­ing ac­cep­tance for adult use of the drug, and some see it as a po­ten­tial source of money to boost spend­ing on pub­lic schools, state law­mak­ers ap­pear not quite ready to le­gal­ize the sale and use of mar­i­juana for recre­ational pur­poses.

“I think the con­sen­sus is: We are not rec­om­mend­ing leg­is­la­tion this ses­sion to le­gal­ize adult use,” said Del. Kath­leen

Du­mais, who co-chairs a bi­par­ti­san work group of del­e­gates and sen­a­tors that’s been study­ing mar­i­juana. “We are still in the in­ves­tiga­tive mode.”

Mary­land le­gal­ized mar­i­juana for med­i­cal pur­poses in 2014, and there are now 16 grow­ers, 18 pro­ces­sors and 85 dis­pen­saries op­er­at­ing statewide. Du­mais and work group co-chair Sen. Bill Fer­gu­son said mem­bers say they still have many more is­sues to re­solve be­fore mov­ing for­ward on le­gal­iza­tion gov­ern­ing recre­ational use.

“It seems like ev­ery time we get some in­for­ma­tion to an­swer one ques­tion, it just begets an­other three or four questions,” said Du­mais, a Mont­gomery County Demo­crat.

The work group has been meet­ing for the past sev­eral months to in­ves­ti­gate mar­i­juana-re­lated is­sues. Some mem­bers took a re­search trip to Colorado, where recre­ational use has been le­gal since 2014.

Mary­land law­mak­ers have in­tro­duced bills to le­gal­ize the adult use of pot for years, but the leg­is­la­tion lan­guished in com­mit­tees.

With the state’s med­i­cal cannabis in­dus­try fi­nally up and run­ning and in­creased

ac­cep­tance of recre­ational use — 57 per­cent sup­port in a Goucher Col­lege poll this year — plus the need to raise money for ed­u­ca­tion, le­gal pot has got­ten a closer look from more law­mak­ers.

But af­ter study­ing the many fac­tors in­volved — from set­ting tax rates to iden­ti­fy­ing drugged driv­ing to ex­pung­ing old con­vic­tions — the work group found it still has more work to do. With­out an en­dorse­ment from the work group, le­gal­iza­tion is un­likely to move for­ward in the 2020 Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion.

Del. David Moon, a work group mem­ber and le­gal­iza­tion sup­porter, said the Gen­eral Assem­bly now could be on track to se­ri­ously con­sider le­gal­iza­tion in 2021.

“That’s the new tar­get, and noth­ing that has hap­pened thus far leads me to be­lieve that goal is not achiev­able,” said Moon, a Mont­gomery County Demo­crat. “I am feel­ing pretty op­ti­mistic that we’ll be able to pull some­thing off in 2021.”

Moon sees prom­ise in the “twist of fate” that Fer­gu­son has been tapped to be the next state Sen­ate pres­i­dent when law­mak­ers go back to work in Jan­uary and current pres­i­dent Thomas V. Mike Miller steps down.

“What are the chances your Sen­ate pres­i­dent is also go­ing to be steeped in the is­sue?” he said. “Now that’s the case.”

The non­profit Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Pro­ject plans to press for le­gal­iza­tion in 2020 any­way, as it has for the past sev­eral years.

“The longer the leg­is­la­ture waits to move for­ward with le­gal­iza­tion, Mary­lan­ders are go­ing to be sub­jected to the harms of cannabis pro­hi­bi­tion,” said Olivia Nau­gle, a leg­isla­tive co­or­di­na­tor for the Mar­i­juana Pol­icy Pro­ject.

Those harms in­clude users risk­ing ar­rest and having to buy prod­uct from un­reg­u­lated sell­ers, as well as the loss of po­ten­tial rev­enue for the state, Nau­gle said.

The work group plans to meet one more time in De­cem­ber to fi­nal­ize its rec­om­men­da­tions, which are likely to in­clude mea­sures that stop short of full le­gal­iza­tion, such as cre­at­ing a com­mis­sion to start col­lect­ing data on mar­i­juana use and mar­i­juana-re­lated ar­rests.

Fer­gu­son, a Bal­ti­more Demo­crat, said the work group ef­forts have been “a re­ally ben­e­fi­cial process.”

“I do think we’ve been able to high­light where the pressure points are and get a sense of where people stand,” he said.

Del. Robin Gram­mer, a Bal­ti­more County Republican and work group mem­ber, said that with le­gal­iza­tion now a “two years down the road ques­tion,” he’d like to see other mar­i­juana poli­cies ad­dressed.

For ex­am­ple, he said, med­i­cal cannabis pa­tients are pre­cluded from own­ing guns, which can limit their job op­por­tu­ni­ties and sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

“If we’re not go­ing to move the big ques­tion this year, to me, we should pri­or­i­tize the is­sues that are al­ready an is­sue,” he said.

And Kris Fur­nish, co-founder of the grass­roots group Mary­land Mar­i­juana Jus­tice, said if law­mak­ers aren’t go­ing for­ward with le­gal­iza­tion now, they should con­sider rais­ing the thresh­old of how much mar­i­juana an in­di­vid­ual is al­lowed to have with­out be­ing pros­e­cuted. Pos­ses­sion of less than 10 grams is a civil of­fense in Mary­land with a po­ten­tial fine, while pos­ses­sion of more than that amount is a crim­i­nal vi­o­la­tion.

“Are we just try­ing to make a crap-ton of money, or are we try­ing to end pro­hi­bi­tion here?” Fur­nish asked. “Why keep throw­ing people in jail for mi­nus­cule mar­i­juana, when we’re al­ready talk­ing about how to fund an ex­punge­ment pro­gram?”

Becky Feld­man, the deputy pub­lic de­fender in Mary­land, said fur­ther de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion would al­low for “bet­ter al­lo­ca­tion of lim­ited crim­i­nal jus­tice re­sources.”

“Crim­i­nal con­se­quences for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion have had a dis­pro­por­tion­ately neg­a­tive im­pact on black and brown com­mu­ni­ties, de­spite the act of pos­ses­sion pos­ing lit­tle to no risk to pub­lic safety,” Feld­man said.

In Bal­ti­more, State’s At­tor­ney Mar­i­lyn Mosby stopped prose­cut­ing cases of mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion this year, say­ing con­vic­tions have hurt people’s job prospects, ad­versely af­fected mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods, and wasted the time and re­sources of po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors. But other ju­ris­dic­tions have con­tin­ued to pros­e­cute mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion cases.

Mosby, a Demo­crat, said it’s im­por­tant that law­mak­ers get all the details right if they’re go­ing to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana. In her opin­ion, that in­cludes mak­ing sure people with past mar­i­juana con­vic­tions can get them au­to­mat­i­cally ex­punged and that people of color can make money in the new in­dus­try.

“Mar­i­juana re­form is a cru­cial step to­wards end­ing the failed war on drugs,” she said. “I’ve been vo­cal on that. We need to pur­sue a pub­lic health ap­proach to drugs.”

Work group mem­bers also learned dur­ing their re­search that tax­ing le­gal mar­i­juana is not likely to gen­er­ate enough money to fund a big boost in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, as some had hoped. Law­mak­ers are ex­pected to con­sider grad­u­ally in­creas­ing state spend­ing on ed­u­ca­tion to $2.8 bil­lion more per year a decade from now to im­ple­ment the ed­u­ca­tion re­forms rec­om­mended by the Kir­wan Com­mis­sion that has been study­ing how to im­prove pub­lic schools.

Mar­i­juana tax rev­enue might not make a dent in that bill. Law­mak­ers on the mar­i­juana work group ac­knowl­edged that the state would need to keep taxes low enough so the price of mar­i­juana isn’t so high that people keep buy­ing from black-mar­ket deal­ers in­stead of li­censed dis­pen­saries.

There’s no of­fi­cial es­ti­mate of how much tax money could be gen­er­ated from mar­i­juana, but law­mak­ers have dis­cussed tar­gets rang­ing from $50 mil­lion to $300 mil­lion per year — much of which would be used for reg­u­lat­ing the mar­i­juana mar­ket, con­duct­ing anti-ad­dic­tion ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.

“This should not be about the money,” said Sen. An­drew Ser­afini, a Wash­ing­ton County Republican. “To me, it’s a pro­hi­bi­tion is­sue.”

Del. Mag­gie McIntosh, a Bal­ti­more Demo­crat who chairs the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Committee, said it’s worth con­sid­er­ing mar­i­juana tax rev­enue as part of the fund­ing pro­gram for schools — even if that’s a dis­cus­sion for fu­ture years.

“We’re not go­ing to be ready to do that this ses­sion,” she said.

“It seems like ev­ery time we get some in­for­ma­tion to an­swer one ques­tion, it just begets an­other three or four questions.” — Del. Kath­leen Du­mais, Mont­gomery County Demo­crat

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