The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland’s communities of color need a swift end to cannabis criminalization

Workers separate cannabis flowers from stalks at Maryland's first legal outdoor marijuana harvest at Culta in October 2019 in Cambridge, Md. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Darryl Barnes, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates. He is chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.

Year after year, polling has shown that a strong majority of Marylanders support ending cannabis prohibition. I had reservations until 2020. In part, what convinced me was thinking about the thousands of Marylanders — disproportionately Black Marylanders — who are arrested and criminalized every year for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol and that is now legal in 18 other states (including our neighbors in Virginia and D.C.).

Maryland is lagging on cannabis policy reform, and it is time that we move forward with equitable legalization.

I cannot emphasize enough how urgent the need is to finally put an end to the war on cannabis in our state. Our current cannabis laws are harming our constituents, and they are not enforced equally. I applaud House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) for their commitment to prioritizing cannabis legalization during our 2022 legislative session. It is encouraging to see our legislative leaders taking this issue seriously, and, as the chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, I stand by their commitment and will work to ensure we cross the finish line.

Given the opportunity, I firmly believe that our state would pass a legalization measure if it were up to the voters. We saw this happen in New Jersey. After failing to find enough common ground to pass a bill legislatively, New Jersey lawmakers opted to put a proposal to legalize cannabis before the voters. The measure was overwhelmingly approved, with 67 percent of voters in favor of legalization.

If this is the approach Maryland takes, and it is in fact passed by voters, it will be of the utmost importance for our legislature to ensure implementation is both timely and equitable. I’ve long been a vocal leader advocating for diversity and equity in the existing medical cannabis program, and I will work to ensure that social equity, reparative justice and community reinvestment are at the heart of legalization and included from the outset.

However, speedy implementation cannot come at the expense of equity in the growing, processing and distribution of cannabis. A disparity study will provide us key information in determining how we can best address existing inequities and maximize participation in the cannabis industry. Our communities of color have borne the brunt of cannabis prohibition. To this day, Black Marylanders are twice as likely as White Marylanders to be arrested for cannabis despite similar usage rates. This harsh reality is why any legalization measure in Maryland must also seek to repair the past harms prohibition has caused — particularly in communities of color. This includes providing for expungement of past cannabis offenses, ensuring that those who have been disproportionately harmed by prohibition have ownership at every level in the legal industry, and reinvesting the bulk of the tax revenue from legal cannabis sales back into these communities.

The longer we delay, the longer people will be at risk, particularly Black and Brown Marylanders who suffer disproportionately. If Maryland does not move forward with legalization this year, people will continue to be needlessly arrested and criminalized, consumers will have access only to the unregulated and dangerous illicit market, and the state will miss out on generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Maryland has the opportunity to legalize cannabis right and with equity at the forefront. The time to replace the devastating war on cannabis with comprehensive, equitable legalization is now.

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