A committee to legalize marijuana in Maryland met for the first time Tuesday, as lawmakers considered a bill that would regulate cannabis use by adults and earmark a significant portion of the industry’s tax revenue for programs that target communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.

The bill ends Maryland’s failed cannabis prohibition policy and replaces it with a system for testing and regulating cannabis for adults 21 and older, said Del Jazz Lewis (D), sponsor of HB 32, during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

This measure takes the production and sale of marijuana off the streets and ensures the production of regulated, labeled and lab-tested products, while creating thousands of new good jobs and businesses and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue that benefits the community, Lewis said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, House members spent more than two hours hearing testimony and discussing the bill, but ultimately did not vote on whether to take it up.

HB 32 is one of two marijuana legalization measures submitted to Maryland legislators this year. The other is SB 708, filed by Senate Finance Committee Vice Chairman Brian Feldman (D) and co-sponsored by key Senate Democrats, including the panel’s chairman and majority leader. The measure should be implemented at 4. March to be heard by a Senate committee.

Mr. Lewis, who introduced the bill in December, said he introduced it because we have the data and public opinion on our side to end the ban.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Lewis announced amendments to bring his proposal in line with Senate legislation. Key changes include tax cuts and halving the maximum number of retail marijuana licenses from 200 to 100.

The biggest difference between the bills in the two chambers, Lewis said, is that HB 32 would allow state regulators to issue an unlimited number of licenses to micro-businesses, despite restrictions on licensing for medium and large businesses. This is critical to the survival of independent clinics when they must compete with vertical companies, he said.

With the proposed changes, the bill would legalize possession of up to four ounces of two-gram marijuana to comply with Senate reports, as well as home cultivation for personal use. Individuals convicted of minor cannabis-related activities in the past will be found not guilty, and individuals currently incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses will be re-convicted or released.

I will testify on HB 32 to end cannabis prohibition and create pathways to industry for those hardest hit by the war on drugs. This bill is justice in action. Please log in. @MDMJ2018 @MarijuanaPolicy @Progressive_MD @MDNORML @UFCW400 @1199SEIU_MDDC https://t.co/gzuAB9VIKg

– Jazz Lewis (@JazzforMaryland) February 16, 2021

Revenue from the new legal industry is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in the first few years of the program and will continue to increase as the market matures. Nearly two-thirds of this revenue, 63%, goes to a community reinvestment fund that supports programs that address the effects of poverty, mass incarceration and racism.

Additional funds will be allocated to Maryland’s general fund, black state universities and colleges (HBCU), drug treatment, cannabis research and education, particularly to encourage youth to stay off the drug.

The bill would also allow existing medical marijuana companies to enter the adult market sooner, even though they would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in registration fees. The money will be used to establish a social equity fund that will provide capital and other resources to social capital candidates seeking to enter the sector.

Let’s be clear: Thirty percent of Maryland is black, Lewis said during Tuesday’s hearing. We need to put our money where our mouth is.

A number of legislators on the committee, as well as advocates who have spoken in favor of HB 32, praised the measure for its great value, both for criminal justice and for creating a diversified legal profession.

Personally, I wouldn’t support anything that didn’t give black people some protection to participate in this industry, said Vice President Vanessa Atterbiri (D).

Ben Jalous, former NAACP president and Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland in 2018, told commissioners that you rarely get the chance to build an industry while ironing out the mistakes of the past and creating an inclusive economy.

Others who testified in favor of the measure applauded the equity goals, but suggested changes to better protect small and minority businesses. Hope Wiseman, CEO of Mary and Main, one of the only black medical marijuana distributors in the state, suggested adjusting registration fees to account for the fact that some businesses are more profitable than others. Mr. Wiseman suggested a system where the producers pay the most, then the processors, then the dispensaries, because this system is based on the total amount of revenue each type of permit receives.

Skeptical lawmakers in the House of Representatives lobbied proponents on a number of issues typical of legalization, including B. public consumption (which would remain illegal under the bill), driving under the influence of cannabis (also already illegal), and whether state legalization would prevent employers from monitoring their employees’ drug use (which would not).

Del. Mike Griffith (R), fears that legalizing the use of THC-containing foods could lead to an increase in use among teens. My six-year-old child would see an edible chocolate bar, not know the difference and go to town, he says.

Olivia Naugle, legislative analyst for the support group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), responded that data from the first U.S. states where marijuana was legalized show that use by teens has actually declined. Colorado and Washington have conducted large-scale surveys of thousands of high school students since the two states legalized cannabis in 2012, and the results actually show a slight decline in cannabis use among teens, Naugle said. I think the regulation of cannabis really gives young people the message that marijuana is for adults and that responsible use is for adults.

Del. Ron Watson (D), who indicated support for the bill, asked why the expense provisions would not apply to those convicted of selling marijuana in small quantities. Everyone seems to be taken care of except the salesman or the girl, he says.

Lewis said: I’m happy to clarify things, but I acknowledge that there will probably be disagreements on the line: I think there are different opinions on the level at which someone goes from cornerback to something bigger.

Other legislators asked Mr. Lewis how equity would be defined and who specifically would benefit from the proposal. What if you’re only black and live in the suburbs? asked Atterbeary.

According to Mr. Lewis, under the current bill, three groups would be eligible for Equalization benefits: those who have previously served time in prison for cannabis-related charges or their family members, those who live in areas where there would be a disproportionate number of cannabis laws, and/or those who are members of a racial minority in the state.

He added that advocates have contacted the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that these rules, particularly regarding access on the basis of race, are constitutional. We expect him to come back now, Lewis said.

The bill also provides for the oversight of certain ancillary activities, such as security and delivery services, solely for shareholders.

Rajani Gudlawalleti, board member of the Baltimore Anti-Drug Coalition, told the panelists that legalization and social justice measures are needed to repair the damage of the war on drugs and build a healthy society.

Our vision of a healthier world requires a model of cannabis legalization that includes strategies for repairing the effects of the war on drugs in communities of color, Goodloveletti said, which is why the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition supports HB 32.

The legalization bill would leave the medical marijuana system unchanged and establish a separate regulatory agency for the adult consumer market. William Tilburg, executive director of the state Cannabis Medical Commission, who did not take a position on the legislation, said this approach literally doubles the administrative costs for the state and advocated for both systems to be overseen by a joint regulatory agency.

At one point during the hearing, Lewis announced that the Maryland Department of Health had approved the legalization plan, but then said the announcement was the result of a misunderstanding by a department official who had initially indicated in a text message to lawmakers that he would testify in support of the bill.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said the agency had signed up as an informal witness and had not taken a position on the bill itself.

Maryland legalized medical marijuana in 2012. Two years later, a decriminalization law took effect, replacing criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams with civil fines of $100 to $500. Since then, however, a number of attempts to further reform marijuana have failed.

A bill to expand the threshold for decriminalization of possession to one ounce was passed by the House last year but never made it to the Senate.

In May, Gov. Larry Hogan (right) vetoed a bill that would have prevented people with minor cannabis convictions from disclosing their criminal records in the state’s database. In his veto statement, he said this was because lawmakers had failed to pass a separate, unannounced violent crime measure.

In the past, Mr. Hogan has been cautious about marijuana, although he has recently indicated he is open to the idea. In 2017, he declined to answer a question about whether voters could address the issue, but in mid-2018 he signed a bill to expand the state’s medical marijuana system and said it was worth considering full legalization: Right now, I think it’s worth exploring, he said at the time.

As for Maryland lawmakers, a House committee held hearings in 2019 on two bills that would have legalized marijuana. Although the proposals did not pass, they prompted many reluctant legislators to seriously consider changes.

Ms. Atterbeary, who was also present at Tuesday’s hearing, said at previous hearings that she was opposed to the principle of legalization in previous years, but increasingly in the spirit that it is something close to my heart.

In a statement after Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Naugle praised Lewis for his commitment to HB 32. Implementation of this measure would have saved thousands of Marylanders, proportionately blacks, from arrest and conviction.

Fifteen states have now eliminated cannabis prohibition, she added, noting that conservative states like Montana and South Dakota have also passed legalization laws. Maryland should follow suit and adopt HB 32 during this session. It is a fair and equitable cannabis policy that Maryland can be proud of and that sets an example for other states to follow.

Lawmakers and advocates are pushing for marijuana to be available on Free Speaker’s Day.

Photo by N-Free

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