Maryland voters will decide this November whether to join 19 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., in legalizing recreational cannabis and forgiving simple marijuana possession convictions.

While the movement to legalize cannabis has been growing in Maryland for decades, the choice for voters comes just one month after President Joe Biden urged state and local governments to follow his lead in forgiving past federal simple marijuana possession convictions.

For years polls have shown at least 60% of state voters support the idea — confirmed in polling this campaign season that shows voters are likely to approve the change to the Maryland Constitution. However, should Question 4 pass, ample policy decisions would remain — including those needed to create a safe and regulated marketplace for buyers and sellers. This means lawmakers and cannabis policy stakeholders may have a busy legislative session ahead.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat representing Baltimore County, said legislators are already working on a plan to implement adult-use cannabis while they wait to hear what the voters want.

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“We are creating a new industry and significantly reforming our criminal justice system, and I want to be very clear about where public sentiment is,” Jones said in a statement. “We put it on the ballot so voters can decide.”

Under current Maryland law, the simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor, and depending on the amount, can be punishable by imprisonment of up to 6 months, fines or both. Possessing small amounts of marijuana became a civil rather than a criminal penalty in 2014.

Should voters abide by this next step, here’s some of what will change.

As of July 1, 2023, those 21 and older would be able to use recreational marijuana and possess up to 1.5 ounces. The new law would also allow Marylanders to grow two marijuana plants on private property as long as they were kept out of view.

What passing Question 4 won’t do is create a recreational marijuana marketplace, and the state will need to move fast to slow the growth of an encroaching illicit market. Jones said the General Assembly has its eye on the fast-approaching date, should the ballot amendment pass, while “making good decisions about this new industry that are grounded in inclusion.”

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“Equity is not just about who gets licenses to grow, process and sell, but about how we treat those who’ve been touched by the criminal justice system for marijuana offenses.” Jones said in a statement. ”There is no denying that we need to do better in making sure Black and Brown Marylanders are involved.”

Passing Question 4 would forgive past crimes

A companion bill would automatically expunge past convictions starting on Jan. 1, 2023, in cases where simple marijuana possession was the only charge. If simple possession of marijuana was one of many charges, an individual can ask a court to expunge just that charge. Those currently detained on simple possession convictions could petition to be released beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

The expungements would “begin to repair the decades of harm that cannabis prohibition has caused disproportionately in communities of color,” said Olivia Naugle, a senior policy analyst at national nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project.

“An arrest record could affect one’s ability to gain housing, employment and a number of other public benefits,” Naugle said.

Although Black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates, Black people were three times more likely to be arrested than white people for possessing marijuana, a 2010 nationwide study done by the American Civil Liberties Union found. In 2018 Black Marylanders were arrested more than twice as often as their white counterparts, according to the ACLU.

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“The next step to really begin to repair the decades of harm prohibition has caused communities of color is it’s really critical that equity and restorative justice are centered in any implementing legislation to stand up an adult use industry,” Naugle said.

Not all favor legalization

Some are raising public health concerns around broadening access to a drug the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links to negative mental health effects, such as anxiety, depression, suicide and psychosis.

Christine Miller, a former researcher at Johns Hopkins who has studied the root causes of psychosis, said research has consistently connected marijuana use to different types of psychotic behavior, including chronic long-term psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.

Miller does not think marijuana should be made legal. But if the amendment passes, she would like to see the state raise the legal age limit to 30 to bypass the peak age of schizophrenia onset.

Retired geneticist Kevin Becker said whether to legalize marijuana or not is “not my fight,” though he’s already voted against Question 4 during early voting.

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“My concern is public health,” Becker said.

Becker wants to see health warning labels on marijuana products like those found on cigarettes and alcohol, reflecting the volumes of research on the potential harm marijuana could cause, including use while driving or pregnant.

Got legal recreational-use weed? Not yet.

Just as they did after legalizing medical cannabis, lawmakers will need to create a marketplace for a recreational product — and decide how the state will reap the tax revenues. Unlike medical cannabis, the government can tax a recreational product, as it does cigarettes and alcohol.

If the medical cannabis market is a bellwether of product demand, there’s sales tax revenue to be made. As of mid October, 159,859 people have been certified to use the medical product, and dispensaries took in more than $388 million in sales in the first nine months this year, according to online data.

Maryland Association of Counties Executive Director Michael Sanderson has been watching how states around the country are implementing their cannabis legislation and taxation.

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Many states “have either created a local option for a local government to add on their own tax, or there’s a distribution from the state back to local governments for some share of the revenue from the new regulated industry,” Sanderson said.

Adding to the list of open questions, the state will also need to decide what powers to grant counties and Baltimore City to make cannabis decisions within their own jurisdictions, Sanderson said. Most states “have given localities some degree of opt-out authority.” One example would be whether to welcome sellers or growers in their jurisdictions, he said.

Counties would not be able to opt out of legal marijuana possession and use if the voters decide to codify the ballot amendment.

Medical cannabis: lessons learned

Cannabis business proponents and social equity advocates say they hope administrators center equity when rolling out recreational licenses and learn from the mistakes the state made designing a nascent medical cannabis industry.

After legalizing medical cannabis in 2014, the state fell flat in creating a racially equitable market, giving the majority of grower licenses to white-owned businesses. A 2018 bill intended to make corrections required the state to pursue licensing diversity amid complaints and lawsuits.

Legislation connected to Question 4 would require the state to watch for disparities among the types of businesses who get recreational industry licenses.

Established medical cannabis entrepreneurs, like Venus Hemachandra, co-founder and CEO of Herbiculture Medical Cannabis Dispensary, a woman- and minority-owned small business, are anxious to welcome new cannabis businesses. Hemachandra has a license to grow, process and sell medical cannabis.

While policymakers hash over details, Hemachandra said existing medical dispensaries could play the role of market stabilizer, interrupting illicit market gains while holding the door open for fledgling entrepreneurs.

“We want to make sure that there is room for anybody coming in,” she said.

Hemachandra, who is bursting with ideas to create a socially equitable recreational cannabis economy, suggested the state could create a dual license, permitting dispensaries like hers to sell medical and recreational cannabis, providing a safe and regulated product to interested users.

Dual-license owners could pay into a capital investment fund intended to seed women- and minority-owned businesses, she said. Those first-to-market sellers could agree to a temporary cap on recreational sales until other businesses have a chance to catch up.

Since Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately arrested for possessing and using marijuana, “it’s only fair that these folks get a real shot,” she said.

“We have this opportunity to come in and absolutely create generational wealth,” she said. “And I think that’s super important to making sure that communities, especially of color, are successful.”

Question 4 will also avoid the slow implementation of past ballot questions, particularly sports betting. Two years ago voters approved sports betting, but Maryland residents are still unable to place bets online as state regulators work out the details. If Question 4 passes, marijuana becomes legal on July 1, 2023, whether the state marketplace is ready or not.

brenda.wintrode@thebaltimorebanner.com