The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cannabis bill leaves champions of criminal justice reform dissatisfied

A cannabis plant in 2019 at the cultivation company Culta's farm in Cambridge, Md. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Maryland legislators drew criticism for the rollout of the state’s medical marijuana industry, which awarded no licenses to Black business owners.

So as they undertook plans this year for legalizing recreational marijuana, they struggled — not just with expanding opportunities for those shut out of the lucrative industry but with the responsibility many felt to begin unwinding decades of failed U.S. drug policies.

Behind the scenes and on the floor, debate centered on how to balance shutting down an illegal market to create a new state-sanctioned one while addressing the toll of the war on drugs — such as Black people being arrested at 3.64 times the rate of White people for having marijuana, even though they use it at similar rates, as an American Civil Liberties Union review of charges levied between 2010 and 2018 found.

Critics say the General Assembly’s plan, which sends to the voters the question of legalizing marijuana and a set of rules that would take effect if the referendum measure passes, is incremental and falls short of a transformational change not only within reach but already achieved in other states.

“It will do little to nothing to prevent and reduce the racial disparities and arrests of marijuana possession, and that’s because of the way the laws are enforced and who is targeted,” said Yanet Amanuel, public policy advocate at the ACLU of Maryland.

Under the measure, people who were arrested for marijuana possession could have their records expunged and others serving time for simple possession could get their sentences reconsidered. Under the legislation, the sale of marijuana remains a crime, rather than a civil offense that carries a steep fine.

Several Black legislators said they reluctantly voted in favor.

“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good for progress,” said Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), who introduced a bill last session to legalize marijuana, with a focus on equity and reparations.

Lewis said 15,000 people every year in Maryland are arrested for simple possession, the majority of them Black.

“This [bill] moves us forward to not having that be the reality,” he said. “It also helps us reach a reality starting January of this upcoming year of people being able to expunge their records. … When you have a criminal conviction on your record, it makes it very very difficult … for you to start a business, for you to get gainful employment.”

Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City) said she grudgingly voted yes because of the impact expungements could have for many of her constituents, but she criticized the Senate for amendments that included increased penalties for smoking marijuana in public: a $250 fine for the first offense, $500 for a second.

Perspective: America’s longest war has been a failure

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), a supporter of legalization, cast a no vote in protest, saying the legislature was “once again leaving the communities most harmed by the intentional war on drugs behind.”

He said the General Assembly failed by not taking the step New York legislators did last year to ensure that the smell of marijuana would no longer serve as probable cause for a search.

Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) introduced an unsuccessful bill, supported by the ACLU of Maryland, called the “Cannabis Legalization and Reparations for the War on Drugs Act.” Carter said she could not support a measure, however well intentioned, that “favors the wealthy” and “doesn’t create adequate repair and restoration” for communities that have borne the brunt of mass incarceration.

Under Carter’s bill, intent to distribute more than 2.5 ounces would have resulted in a fine of $5,000, a civil offense. Under the measure that was approved, it remains a criminal offense. She called it “hypocritical” for the state to plan to eventually set up a multibillion-dollar industry that would financially benefit some and criminalize others.

“A wise man once said that if you stick a knife in a person’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches, you’re not doing them any favors,” Carter said. “Even if you pull the knife all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is when you acknowledge that you put the knife in and then you take the necessary actions to heal and restore the damage.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said that he respects Carter’s position but that for Maryland to join the District and 18 other states that have legalized cannabis, legislators “knew from the beginning that we were going to have to compromise.”

“At the end of the day I’m proud of where we landed,” Ferguson said, adding, “Compromise is what moves the ball down the field, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Under the bill, if the referendum measure passes, Marylanders who are at least 21 years old would be able to legally possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and grow two marijuana plants out of the public view, beginning next year. The bill requires a study of the impact of marijuana on public health and a disparities study looking at the business market and what might be needed to help woman- and minority-owned businesses enter the industry.

It would create a cannabis business assistance fund; a cannabis public health fund to study, among other things, mitigating youth use and to pay for public health campaigns; and a community reinvestment and repair fund, requiring at least 30 percent of the revenue from adult-use cannabis to go to those communities.

Darrell Carrington, a lobbyist who leads a trade group that has worked with Black entrepreneurs interested in the market, said he was pleased that the General Assembly took a measured approach, calling for a diversity study and a look at supply and demand to determine the number of licenses that should be issued.

“We’re learning,” he said, referring to problems with the state’s rollout of its medical cannabis program. “This is a great first start that we recognize that there are things that we don’t know about the industry before we say how many licenses there are going to be and where they are going to be.”

Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who led the debate in the Senate, said legislators can return next year to address regulation, licensing and taxing — components needed to launch the industry. Feldman amended the bill to include a tax break for growers, processors and dispensaries involved in the medical cannabis industry, allowing them to write off business expenses on their state taxes.

“We’re taking a very methodical, deliberate approach,” he told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “There are folks that want to go broader. There are folks who don’t want to go this far.”

Republicans accused Democrats of using the constitutional amendment as a political maneuver to draw voters to the polls in November.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) initially just wanted a constitutional amendment considered this session, but she received some pushback from liberal members of her caucus who said that some attention needed to be given to criminal justice.

Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, tweeted out a statement after the bill’s passage. “The Legislature is focused to get this right and we have more work to do, but this is a huge step forward on our journey to legalize cannabis in Maryland,” he said.