Maryland voters will decide next week whether to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and readers weighing the decision on November’s ballot reached out to The Baltimore Banner with questions. So, we put their questions to the experts.

If the amendment passes, those 21 and older will be able to legally use and possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana as of July 1, 2023. The amendment also allows those with simple marijuana possession convictions to seek expungement, provides grants for small businesses, funds cannabis studies, and according to those in the know, creates more unanswered questions.

Why is Question 4 in the form of a constitutional amendment?

A constitutional amendment allows Maryland voters to directly change their state’s laws — but only if legislators first decide to give them the chance. Getting an amendment on the ballot requires a three-fifths majority vote from each house of the Maryland General Assembly.

So, why would a branch of government that has the power to change state laws not just change the law themselves?

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Given the law’s potential to alter the criminal justice system and create a recreational cannabis market, Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat, said she wants “to be very clear about where public sentiment is.”

“We put it on the ballot so voters can decide,” Jones said in a statement.

Legislators’ choice to put the issue before voters was deliberate, said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at University of Baltimore.

“Legislators probably felt that this was an important enough issue for the voters to decide,” he said.

The issue’s contentious nature could have also been a factor, Hartley hypothesized.

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“I think politically, sometimes it [a constitutional amendment] also allows a state leader to kind of push the issue in to a different direction so that they don’t necessarily have to deal with making that decision, especially if it might be a controversial one, and they give the voters an opportunity to do it.”

If Question 4 passes, will the General Assembly need to modify or refine the law?

If the amendment becomes law, Maryland legislators will immediately start planning for what comes next. For example, the amendment legalizes the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana after July 1, 2023, but it does not establish rules for marijuana sales.

“There’s a whole lot of unanswered questions,” Hartley said. “The implementation of the law, the rules that govern it will likely be debated anyway in the state legislature or in the executive branch, the governor’s agencies.”

Since the amendment would create a recreational product, the state can assess a tax on legal sales, similar to alcohol or cigarettes. The legislature will also need to decide what powers they will grant counties to make their own decisions about cannabis rules in their jurisdictions.

Counties may want to weigh in, too, said Maryland Association of Counties Executive Director Michael Sanderson, who has been watching marijuana legalization play out across the country.

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He said most states “have given localities some degree of opt-out authority,” such as deciding whether to welcome growers or sellers.

“I think this is part of the debate that is still before the General Assembly and hopefully will get sorted out this coming legislative session,” Sanderson said.

What else does the amendment do?

The amendment, should it pass, will do much more than legalize marijuana. It includes mandated studies and reports on cannabis use, and it clears a path for expungement of simple marijuana possession convictions.

The agency that oversees the state’s medical cannabis program must submit a baseline study examining the use of cannabis, and also track cannabis-impaired driving incidents as well as a raft of public health concerns. The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission must study a home grow program and ways to deter minors from using cannabis.

The bill establishes a $40 million fund for grants and loans to help start up small, minority and women-owned cannabis businesses.

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Public health initiatives, such as reducing the use of cannabis among minors and collecting data on the effects of cannabis legalization and consumption, will be spearheaded by a newly-created Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council.

What rights will people have not to smell it everywhere?

State and local laws regulating where someone can smoke cannabis will remain in place.

Smoking marijuana in a private residence or private vehicle will be legal if the law passes. But the laws governing cigarette smoking in private and public settings will also be applied to smoking marijuana. However, unlike cigarette smoking, driving a vehicle while impaired from cannabis will remain illegal.

Smoking cannabis in public places will be a civil offense punishable by a $250 fine for a first offense, according to the new law, down from $500.

“Odor is a big thing,” said Baltimore City Del. Luke Clippinger, who sponsored the cannabis legislation. In the state and nationally, research shows Black people have been arrested in connection to the alleged possession of the drug in disproportionate numbers compared to white people — an issue the bill is intended to address.

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“We want to find a way to regulate cannabis in a way similar to the way that we regulate alcohol,” Clippinger said. “It means it’s not going to totally be invisible from view. But it will clearly lay out the rules ... so that people know what they can and can’t do.”

That means while it won’t be legal to consume cannabis everywhere in public, it’s probable you’ll see and smell people using it in public, like alcohol.

Under current Maryland law, detecting the odor of cannabis can give police cause to search a person or vehicle. But Clippinger said he’s witnessed courts begin to question the legality of odor as probable cause given medical cannabis is now legal.

“The Court of Appeals has been steadily moving in the direction of saying that the mere odor of marijuana is not enough in and of itself to conduct a search,” Clippinger said.

Question 4 requires the Office of the Attorney General to render a formal opinion to the General Assembly in December on the search authority of police officers should cannabis become legal.

Clippinger said in the next session legislators will address what police officers can and can’t do when they smell cannabis.

“The legislature is trying to strike a balance,” Clippinger said, between public safety and legalizing marijuana. “We don’t believe that people should be going to jail for possession of cannabis.”

brenda.wintrode@thebaltimorebanner.com