Maryland voted heavily to legalize recreational marijuana use Tuesday night, according to an Associated Press projection, joining the wave of legalization that has swept the country since 2012.
Voters in more conservative Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota were also deciding on recreational legalization this year, signifying the increasing support for a once-liberal issue. The passage adds Maryland to a growing list of states — 19 and three territories, including both D.C. and Virginia — that have legalized recreational adult use of the drug.
The referendum was what had Kristen White, 29, most excited to get out and vote Tuesday in Silver Spring. Legalization was overdue in Maryland, White said, and she hoped it would end some of the continued stigma around marijuana use.
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“The amount of people who are comfortable using cannabis has increased,” said White, an event planner. “Less people are afraid of it.”
Maryland’s passage, while anticipated, reflects shifting national opinions of pot, as polling shows more than half of Americans now support legalization. Last month, President Biden announced mass pardons for those with past simple possession convictions and moved to review marijuana’s Schedule I classification, a pivotal message on a substance that remains federally illegal.
“Maryland voters were loud and clear in their support for legalizing the responsible adult-use of cannabis,” Maryland NORML Executive Director Losia Nyankale said in a statement Tuesday night. “Question 4 activates long overdue changes to Maryland’s judicial, social, and economic climates. This is an important first step in the right direction.”
With such robust apparent support, the campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in Maryland was subdued in the months and weeks leading up to Election Day. The “Yes on 4” campaign, partly funded by medical cannabis giant Trulieve, released a couple of video ads and hosted a few small rallies.
Instead, many advocates in the state looked ahead to how the state could be a leader in cannabis social equity, an increasing priority for advocates around the country who hope legalization can lessen the impacts of the War on Drugs on minority communities. An American Civil Liberties Union study found that between 2010 and 2018, Black people were arrested at 3.64 times the rate of White people nationally for having marijuana, even though Black and White people use marijuana at similar rates. In Maryland, the ACLU found, Black people were more than 2.1 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people.
“Tonight voters in Maryland made history by bringing the era of failed marijuana prohibition to an end,” said “Yes on 4” campaign chair Eugene Monroe, a former Baltimore Ravens player. “For decades, the unequally enforced criminalization of cannabis in Maryland inflicted damage upon Black and Brown communities. We must turn the page on that disturbing history by centering Maryland’s legal marijuana market around racial equity.”
In the decade since Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, few states have implemented a successful model for social equity. The Maryland House of Delegates’ Cannabis Referendum and Legalization work group reviewed a report earlier this month that estimated 81 percent of cannabis business owners nationally are White.
For Shayne Richmond, a senior at the University of Maryland, issues of social equity were top of mind when he voted in favor of legalization. Standing outside Ritchie Coliseum in College Park handing out fliers, Richmond, who is Black, said he was excited by the prospect of Black entrepreneurs operating in the space.
Criminalization “is another reason for disproportionate incarceration rates of African American males, and that’s something I definitely want to not see anymore,” Richmond, 22, said. “I think that there’s a lot of business opportunities and entrepreneurial opportunities for the Black community as well.”
Maryland decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in 2014, with the punishment of a $100 civil fine. Then, the state opened its first medical dispensaries in 2017, under its medical marijuana program, which has generated more than $420 million in dispensary sales so far this year. But the state received criticism for the initial lack of diversity in licensing.
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When lawmakers voted earlier this year to put Question 4 on the ballot, they authored a companion bill that includes resentencing and expungement provisions for those with past marijuana-possession convictions. With the passage of Question 4, the companion bill requires the state to conduct a study on the public health impact as well as a disparities study to help prospective women- and minority-owned businesses enter the new industry.
Other provisions include creating a cannabis business assistance fund and a community reinvestment and repair fund, requiring at least 30 percent of the revenue from adult-use cannabis to be reinvested in the communities that historically have been most affected by marijuana prosecutions.
City council member Martin A. Mitchell toured precincts around the state Tuesday chatting with voters about issues, including Question 4. Mitchell, who has been nicknamed “the Cannabis Councilman” for his openness about marijuana use, reform and advocacy, said he’s looking forward to the economic opportunities that legalization could bring if it passes.
“Imagine if we use $2 million from legal cannabis to fix the Boys and Girls Club,” Mitchell said in Laurel, gesturing to the buildings behind him where voters were casting ballots.
But for some voters less familiar with the nuances of social equity, licensing and reinvestment, the decision to vote for legalization came down to shifting national perspectives on the once vilified drug, even if they themselves were not users.
That’s how Kathy Baer, a 64-year-old retired public school teacher, saw the issue when she cast her ballot in favor of legalization in College Park on Tuesday morning.
“There’s less of a stigma to it. So many people enjoy it. Why not let them?” Baer said. “In my mind, legalizing it and having dispensaries makes it a little safer.”
Yet public opinion on cannabis usage is far from unanimous. Groups against legalization cite concerns around regulation, environmental impacts, potency and increased use among young people. A report funded by the National Institutes of Health found that young people used marijuana and some hallucinogens at record levels last year.
Pete Ireland, a 51-year old project manager, cast his ballot in Frederick against legalization, calling the push “a numbing of the populace.”
Federico Rodriguez said he was “kind of torn” on Question 4 as he headed into the polling booth Tuesday in Silver Spring. He thought about his family members who benefited from medical marijuana but worried about security and crime concerns.
“Even while I was casting my vote on that particular issue, I was still having doubts. So, I think I’m not the only one,” Rodriguez, 51, said. He didn’t disclose his decision.
But Raymond Abbott, 61, knew exactly what he was going to do. He went out to the polls on Tuesday for one reason, he said: to vote yes on Question 4.
For the other races, Abbott said, he filled in his own name.
Shwetha Surendran, Ian Duncan and Emily Seymour contributed to this report, which has been updated.
2022 Maryland Gubernatorial Election: What to know
Races to watch: Wes Moore is projected to become Maryland’s first Black governor. In other historic races, Anthony G. Brown declares victory as Maryland’s first Black attorney, and Aruna Miller will be the state’s first immigrant and first woman of color to serve as lieutenant governor.
Key issues: Maryland’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana is among key issues that residents care about. Here’s what to know about Maryland’s recreational marijuana law.
What’s at stake: Why are midterm elections important? Democrats could dominate all branches of government if they prevail in November, and Republicans hope to keep a seat at the table.