By E. A. BREEDEN
ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland House of Delegates approved two bills Friday to reform the state’s marijuana laws – one would allow voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana and another to permit those convicted of possessing the drug to request their records be expunged.
Under one bill (HB1), voters would cast ballots in November on a constitutional amendment to legalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis for personal use for anyone age 21 and over. If the referendum passed, the law would go into effect July 1, 2023.
The bill was approved by a 96 to 34 vote.
The companion bill (HB837), authorizes the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to study and report annually on the long-term effects of marijuana use, and it would allow the records of those convicted of marijuana crimes to be expunged. The bill was approved 92 to 37.
The bills now go to the Senate for consideration.
House Minority Whip Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll, opposed the bill, and said he felt the legislation should only be considered after the commission completed its studies.
“We’re putting the marijuana cart before the proverbial horse,” Shoemaker said during Friday’s session.
The bill’s sponsor, Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore, said he wanted the bill to focus on righting the wrongs done to those criminalized previously by its use.
“The thousands of people who have been incarcerated and those incarcerations have not made us safer,” Clippinger said during the floor debate before the vote.
Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, voted against the bill. He said it should have included provisions to rectify damage done by disproportionate convictions and incarcerations of African-Americans for marijuana use.
“It is not enough for us to acknowledge the harm that is done to communities by the intentional war on drugs,” Acevero said. “What is equally as important is that we repair the harm that was done to the communities that have been disproportionately impacted, and unfortunately this bill does not do that.”
Clippinger said in an interview with Capital News Service that the votes were an important first step.
An October 2021 Goucher College Poll showed 60% of Maryland residents approved of marijuana legalization, down from 67% from a previous poll seven months earlier.
“That’s why we wanted to have a referendum on this issue, to allow people to look at this really challenging issue and decide for themselves whether or not we should legalize adult-use cannabis,” Clippinger told CNS.
Clippinger said he understands Acevero’s concerns regarding fixing past deeds.
“We have a long way yet to go,” Clippinger said. “One of the issues is figuring out how we can help communities that have been disenfranchised and disempowered by the criminalization of cannabis. That’s the next step.”
Approval of the two bills came after a turbulent floor debate Wednesday when House Republicans failed to pass seven proposed amendments, including one that would allow counties to opt out of legalization. Others would have broadened enforcement of marijuana use in public or while operating vehicles.
“The fine for the public consumption of alcohol is higher than what it is for marijuana and you can go to jail for the public consumption of alcohol in Maryland, but not marijuana,” House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel, R-Allegany, said Wednesday. “This isn’t a slap on the wrist, this is a tickle on the wrist.”
Currently, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in Maryland does not result in arrest, jail time or a criminal record. Instead, possession of small amounts results in civil penalties. The fine for a first offense is $100, up to $250 for a second offense and up to $500 for three or more offenses.