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Maryland House speaker raises concerns about social equity as debate over marijuana legalization begins

Adrienne Jones, the first Black person to serve in the position, says the state needs to ‘make sure the equity part of this is right’

Employees at SunMed Growers tend to medical marijuana plants at the company's grow facility in Warwick, Md. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) is so cautious about legalizing marijuana in her state that she hoped to start the process this year by putting the issue to voters in November. Nothing else.

The heavy lifting — deciding who should get licenses, how the program should be regulated and how to ensure it is equitable — should wait until the 2023 legislative session, she said.

As the first Black person and first woman in her role, she feels the weight of ensuring a process that achieves something she says no state has: equity in who benefits from loosening rules that disproportionately ensnared Black people in the criminal justice system.

But as that caution ran up against the urgency of younger, more liberal members of her caucus who pointed to processes well underway elsewhere and the continued disproportionate number of arrests of Black residents, she has agreed to back a proposal that automatically expunges some marijuana-related arrests, among other things.

The measure bends toward the type of justice she has pursued across other issues touching on race, from public health to policing to funding for historically Black universities and colleges. And as debate begins in earnest about what the billion-dollar industry might look like, she is adamant any regulatory process that follows a referendum must center on the people largely left out when medical marijuana was legalized: entrepreneurs of color.

“We want to make sure the equity part of this is right, so that everyone who wants to go into [business] can,” she said. “We don’t want anyone to be blocked out for any reason.”

With an increasing number of states legalizing adult use of marijuana — including Virginia, the first south of the Mason-Dixon Line — other Maryland lawmakers, including Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), say it is time to forge ahead.

“Punting-the-ball approach, although I understand that it may be wanting to avoid some of the tougher issues, we have other states around the region that are moving forward and they are creating a marketplace to get tax dollars out of what is an unrelated illicit market,” said Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who has sponsored a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana that Ferguson supports.

Jones envisions taking multiple steps before implementation, leaving the most controversial ones for next year. The initial step deals with criminal justice, allowing for automatic expungements and, starting on Jan. 1, legal possession of up to 1.5 ounces. After the 2022 session, studies would be done on the impact of marijuana on public health and on what might be needed to help women and minority businesses enter the industry. The debate on licenses and regulations would be left for the 2023 legislative session.

Others say Maryland has had enough time, and it has the ability to pass legislation this session that creates a strong equity program, one that avoids past pitfalls and follows some of the successes of other states. Maryland cannot remain an outlier in the region, they say.

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The state is surrounded by D.C., which legalized adult use in 2014, and other states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, that have moved forward on legalization. Last month, a bill in Delaware cleared an initial legislative hurdle.

Feldman’s measure, which has a social equity program, doesn’t include a referendum, but Ferguson and Feldman are open to putting the question to voters. They said voters should know what legalization would look like before they are asked to cast their ballot.

“We are ready to move forward on this issue,” Ferguson said in an interview last week. “We’ve learned from a number of other states. I think at this point 18 states have legalized adult use, and we’ve seen the detrimental impacts of marijuana criminalization with a failed war on drugs that has done nothing to reduce consumption but instead has created a marketplace that exists regardless of whether or not it’s legal and ensnared people of color disproportionately.”

On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a White person, even though Black and White people use marijuana at similar rates, according to a 2020 ACLU report, “A Tale of Two Countries.”

In Maryland, Black people are 2.1 times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though marijuana is used at similar rates. The state has three counties, Worcester, Dorchester and Calvert, in the nation’s top 10 for marijuana possession arrest rates per 100,000 people, the report stated. Black people in several counties, including Queen Anne’s, Cecil and Frederick, are arrested at twice the national average for marijuana possession.

Black people have so far been shut out of the limited market for marijuana, having secured none of the state’s 15 licenses awarded for medical marijuana, said Michael Arrington, a former state lawmaker, lobbyist and head of the Maryland Minority Cannabis Business Association.

“We don’t want to see a wealth opportunity generated and that community doesn’t stand to benefit in nominal ways,” Arrington said. “It’s not about speed to the market. The market isn’t going anywhere.

The two bills supported by Jones that are sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) call for a referendum and largely focuses on criminal justices issues. The automatic expungements would apply to anyone previously found guilty of simple possession of marijuana with no other charges connected to the arrest. It also would affect anyone currently being held for a marijuana conviction. The studies would look at a range of things, including the impact of marijuana usage on public health, advertising legal marijuana and barriers to entering the industry.

“We need to learn from our mistakes of the past because we cannot repeat the debacles that took place in the rollout of medical cannabis licenses,” Clippinger said during a hearing on Monday.

Feldman’s bill includes a criminal justice element that deals with expungements and, among other things, creates a disparity study, a start-up fund for small, minority-owned businesses and a “community investment repair” fund for communities disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests.

Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City), who has championed criminal justice revisions, has introduced a separate bill that the ACLU of Maryland is lobbying for passage. It would raise the legal limit to four ounces; prohibit an officer from using the smell of marijuana, without other legitimate cause for suspicion, as probable cause to arrest and perform a search of a person or a vehicle without a warrant; vacate some past marijuana convictions; ensure that legal marijuana use cannot be the basis to deny housing, parole, or child custody; and reallocate 60 percent of tax revenue to Black and Brown communities affected by the war on drugs.

A report released last week by the Minority Cannabis Business Association, a national trade group, found that less than half of the states that have legalized medical or adult use marijuana have social equity programs. Thirteen of the 18 adult-use states and two of the 18 medical-only legal cannabis states have social equity programs.

House Economic Matters Chairman C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), who is Black, said during Monday’s hearing that “we are not going to leave our people behind … my goal is not just to create Black jobs and minority jobs, but to create Black millionaires. … That can only be done if we move forward steadily, but knowledgeably.”

Jonathan P. Caulkins, a drug policy researcher and operations research and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said while a lot of focus is placed in some states on entrepreneurs the biggest effect of legalization will be on expungements.

“Tens of thousands people are affected by that, and I think sometimes the sense of scale is lost in the debates,” he said. Caulkins said moving forward with the expungements seems “smart, going for the big target, even if the other dimensions come along a year or two later.”

Jones said the House companion bill is designed to immediately repair the damage done to those who have a simple possession on their record and are unable to get a job or an apartment.

Meanwhile, she would not say whether she personally supports legalization.

“It’s not about what Speaker Jones wants or doesn’t want,” she said. “… If done right, the approach that we’re doing, it would help Black and Brown people who are in jail for simple possession. … So in that case, I’m more there, but I still want us to dot our i’s and cross our t’s before full implementation.”