Advocates supporting a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational use of marijuana launched a campaign Thursday to spread the word to Maryland voters that the decision is up to them on November’s ballot.

The “Yes on 4″ campaign says approving recreational marijuana could improve economic opportunity, racial equity and public safety in a Thursday news release. The referendum marks the state’s first marijuana-related constitutional amendment, after state lawmakers expanded Maryland’s medical marijuana program in 2014.

Alex Hughes, the campaign’s co-manager, said the group plans a “full scale campaign” to spread the word to voters, including social media campaigns and advertisements.

“Maryland has been at the forefront on cannabis reform, and this is sort of the natural next step,” Hughes said. Hughes served as chief of staff to two Democratic speakers of the house, Adrienne Jones, of Baltimore County, and the late Michael Busch.

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A majority of Maryland residents, regardless of political party, support the legalization of recreational cannabis, according to a March Goucher College poll. As of May, 19 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. have legalized the adult recreational use of cannabis, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill that put the referendum on the ballot. The referendum lets voters decide whether recreational marijuana use and possession will become legal for those aged 21 and older. If passed, the amendment would become state law on July 1, 2023.

An accompanying cannabis reform bill would allow people currently incarcerated for marijuana possession to apply for resentencing, and mandate the court release them if they are not serving another sentence. The reform bill also creates a path for the expungement for various marijuana possession charges. These provisions would take effect — only if the referendum passes — on Jan. 1, 2023.

Baltimore City Democrat Del. Luke Clippinger sponsored the referendum and the reform bill. He said voters must consider whether the criminalization of marijuana possession has made them safer.

“I don’t believe that it has,” he said.

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Illegal sales of marijuana will still be punishable under state law, Clippinger said.

Former Baltimore Raven Eugene Monroe, who is serving as the chairman for the “Yes on 4″ campaign, also highlighted the harm of marijuana prohibition.

“Passing Question 4 will put an end to the failed criminalization of cannabis, create a well-regulated legal marijuana market centered around equity, and open up new doors for local entrepreneurs and small business owners. I hope every Marylander will vote yes on Question 4 this November,” Monroe said in a news release.

Monroe, a 35-year-old who retired from professional football in 2016, played his last three seasons with the Ravens. Since retiring, the former offensive tackle has become an advocate for legalizing cannabis for chronic pain management and has publicly pressed the NFL to allow its players to use cannabis to stem the use of addictive painkillers, such as opioids.

One analysis of arrest data revealed Black people were more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

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Legalizing marijuana “will significantly decrease marijuana possession arrest rates that have disproportionately impacted Black communities more than White and non-Black communities in the State,” according to the bill’s racial equity analysis.

Maryland’s tax revenue could also receive a boost. The conservative-leaning nonprofit Tax Foundation roughly estimated Maryland could earn more than $135 million in tax revenue from a legal recreational cannabis market, but cautioned cannabis revenue takes time to build as legal businesses gain ground and illicit sales diminish.

In just under two decades, Maryland law has inched toward cannabis reform.

Beginning in 2003, the state began making legal allowances for the medical use of marijuana.

Then, in 2013, state law created a commission responsible for implementing the infrastructure of statewide medical marijuana distribution, including issuing licenses for growers of medical marijuana. That same year, a law cleared caregivers who carry marijuana and associated paraphernalia for someone using the drug for a medical reason.

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Identification cards validating medical marijuana use based on a doctor’s written approval followed in 2014.

Currently, possession of more than 10 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor, according to state law, and can result in a six-month jail sentence, up to a $1,000 fine, or both. A first offense of possessing less than 10 grams, can result in a fine and is considered a civil offense.

Question 4 is one of five constitutional amendments on the November ballot.

Campaigns urging people to vote a preferred way on ballot questions have spent big in previous Maryland elections. In 2020, casinos, betting companies and sports teams supporting the legalization of sports betting spent at least $3.6 million urging voters to approve the statewide ballot question.

Hughes said the “Yes on 4″ campaign is fundraising and hoping for grassroots and industry contributions.

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