Republicans push back against cannabis odor law, but repeal seems unlikely

Republicans push back against cannabis odor law, but repeal seems unlikely

Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, addresses the Senate chamber in the 2023 legislative session. (Angelique Gingras/Capital News Service)

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By ANGELIQUE GINGRAS 

Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS – Republicans are pushing to repeal a controversial Maryland law that prohibits police from pulling over and searching drivers simply because they smell of marijuana, but Democratic leaders say they aren’t interested in dramatic changes to the state’s cannabis legislation this year.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, says Democrats are only considering what they refer to as “improvements” to Maryland’s cannabis law, following its legalization for adult use last year.

“I think we’re going to have a cannabis bill this year that sort of does some – I don’t want to call it clean-up – but adjustments to the system that we passed last year,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think you’ll see major changes to the program, but implementation adjustments.”

In 2023, the Maryland General Assembly passed the new “odor” law hoping to prevent unwarranted search and seizure against people of color, according to members of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus, who were proponents of the bill. With Democrats controlling both chambers of the General Assembly, their opposition to repeal makes it unlikely.

But critics of the law – Republicans in particular – say the law is making it harder for police to do their jobs.

“The irony is, if we see someone chugging a beer, police can pull them over,” said Sen. William Folden, R-Frederick, a police officer who serves in the legislature.  He says the law potentially takes away probable cause for police when “there is a crime occurring, just because you’re saying, well, you’re not allowed to use your nose anymore.”

After voters approved a ballot referendum legalizing cannabis for adult use, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2023 setting up licensing and taxation as well as other rules.

Those laws were meant to address “the harms of the past when it comes to criminalization of cannabis,” Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery, chairperson of the Black Caucus and sponsor of the odor law, told Capital News Service.

Maryland’s odor law isn’t uncommon. In fact, several states that have legalized cannabis have said its smell doesn’t warrant a police search of a vehicle, or they’re considering such a provision.

“The public clearly wanted marijuana legalized, fine,” said Sen. Jack Bailey, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s. “But we shouldn’t do away with the requirements.”

But top Democrats said they are only considering small alterations, including adjustments to the duties and make-up of the Maryland Cannabis Administration and related authorities.

“It was hugely complicated, lots of moving pieces for the cannabis bill last year,” Ferguson said. “And as we’ve been implementing, there’s little things that have to be worked through.”

Wilkins says the goal of Democrats and the Black Caucus is “working closely with the administration to make sure that our intentions of the bill are carried out.”

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Capital News Service

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Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.

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