Maryland moved closer to offering legal cannabis for adults and enshrining reproductive health care rights into the state constitution, as Gov. Wes Moore signed dozens of bills into law on Wednesday.
Lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates packed State House hallways waiting for their turn to witness the governor autograph some of the 2023 General Assembly’s most progressive legislation and pose for pictures while he was signing.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, who said he was asked about the legislature taking on “controversial topics,” said he’s choosing an alternative viewpoint.
“I’d like to rephrase that statement, that sentiment, and say that we didn’t take on controversial topics,” he said. “We made bold decisions on topics that needed to be addressed.”
Mixed among the bundle was the highly anticipated recreational cannabis law, which will regulate the state’s newlylegalized industry. Recreational sales are set to begin on July 1.
State officials in their opening remarks highlighted the economic opportunity they hope the new law will bring communities previously harmed by cannabis prohibition.
Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he hopes and believes the structure “will become a national model for creating real economic opportunity for communities that have the most to gain and who have lost the most in the past.”
Mandated by the 67% of voters in November who supported legalizing recreational cannabis, lawmakers focused on two priorities: crushing an illicit market and expanding business opportunities for communities that have disproportionately suffered the harms of the war on drugs.
The sweeping law settled a host of commerce-related issues, levied a 9% tax rate on recreational products and set the number of cannabis business licenses. License eligibility has been prioritized for those who have lived or attended schools in areas with extraordinary numbers of marijuana-related convictions compared to statewide averages.
Moore signed the bill expected to create a revenue boom after tucking his own cannabis business holdings into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest.
Moore also signed a measure that will ask Maryland voters next year whether they want to enshrine the right to reproductive health choices into the state constitution. Proposed constitutional amendments do not require the governor’s support, but Moore added his signature anyway, saying: “Maryland will always be a safe haven for abortion access and abortion rights.”
Maryland law has protected the option to continue or end pregnancies since the early 1990s. But in the light of the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the Roe v. Wade decision that had protected abortion rights nationally, Maryland lawmakers and advocates wanted to add an extra layer of protection.
“Reproductive care is health care. It is not a debate. It is not a question and we’re making sure that it never is in Maryland,” said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Moore was joined by Jones and Ferguson in signing other bills that they say ensure Maryland will be a safe state for reproductive health and abortion care.
One bill will prohibit law enforcement in other states from requiring Maryland-based providers to testify or provide evidence in cases involving reproductive health care — an important measure, advocates say, as other states have criminalized abortion. Another bill enhances privacy protections on patient health records, and a third requires public universities to create plans for offering reproductive health care.
The reproductive health care bills were so popular that the governor’s photographer had to arrange multiple pictures of different groups of lawmakers and supporters, because they couldn’t all fit in the frame.
Several other bills that were among dozens signed during a ceremony at the State House in Annapolis focused on health care, including:
- Trans Health Equity Act: The act will expand the scope of gender-affirming health care and procedures covered by Medicaid, the government health insurance program for low-income residents. Advocates held pink-and-blue transgender pride flags as, again, multiple groups of pictures had to be taken.
- Josh Siems Act: The act will require hospitals to include fentanyl in toxicology screenings. It’s named for Josh Siems, a Baltimore native who died by overdose. His partner and family pushed for the legislation after learning that fentanyl didn’t show up in his medical testing, even though there were indications that he used the synthetic opioid.
- Mental and behavioral health: Several bills were signed into law aimed at expanding access to, and improving the quality of mental and behavioral health care, including a bill to continue state funding for the 988 hotline that provides mental health and suicide prevention services.
- SNAP recipients and Medicaid: A bill would automatically enroll Marylanders who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, into the Medicaid program. Supporters estimate 65,000 uninsured Marylanders would gain health coverage this way.
- Health insurance subsidies: A bill would continue a pilot program offering state subsidies for Marylanders ages 18 to 34 who get insurance through the state’s health insurance exchange.
- Paid family and medical leave: Lawmakers followed up on a bill passed last year to iron out the details of a state program that eventually will allow workers to take paid sick time off of up to 12 weeks, funded by employer and employee paycheck contributions.
- Immigrant health care workers: This measure prohibits health boards from requiring license applicants to prove their citizenship or immigration status — effectively allowing undocumented graduates of nursing schools and other health training programs to work in their field. Supporters hope that this will help with the ongoing nursing shortage.
The bill signing was briefly put on hold after a man attending the ceremony experienced some distress and was taken to the hospital as a precaution. The governor handed his glass of water to the man as law enforcement, two elected officials who are doctors and ultimately an emergency medical crew attended to the man.
Maryland lawmakers passed 810 bills during their recent General Assembly session, sending them to the governor for consideration. So far, Moore has signed more than 400 of those bills into law.
For the remaining bills, Moore has until May 30 to veto them, sign them into law, or allow them to become law without his signature. Among those awaiting action: bills that limit the scope of concealed carry handgun permits in Maryland, expand a tax break on military retirement income, and grant a subsidy to National Guard members to help pay for health insurance.