Marijuana leaf

Courtesy file photo of a marijuana plant.

Should marijuana be legalized in Maryland? How should it be taxed? What impact would legalization have on crime rates and residents’ health?

A Maryland General Assembly task force on Tuesday began its work on studying possible legalization of cannabis for adult use — a signal the legislature is getting serious about moving forward with legislation next year.

“I don’t think there’s a foregone conclusion here,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who is co-chair of the bipartisan task force. “We really need to dig into: What have other states learned? What is different about Maryland?”

At the work group’s first meeting in Annapolis, Ferguson said the task force would finish its work “potentially” by the end of the year, but it was unclear what the members would recommend.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat and co-chair of the task force, said the body will form subcommittees to study the impact of marijuana legalization on criminal justice and public health, while considering best approaches to taxation, licensing and ensuring participation by small, woman-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and late House Speaker Michael Busch formed the work group in February to make recommendations at the end of December that could be used to develop bills for the 2020 legislative session.

Lawmakers are looking for additional revenue streams — including taxing marijuana and legalizing sports betting — to help fund the proposals from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. The so-called Kirwan commission, nicknamed after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan, has recommended ambitious proposals to boost schools that total about $3.8 billion annually.

On Tuesday, the Marijuana Legalization Workgroup heard testimony from Mathew Swinburne, an associate director with the Network for Public Health Law, about how state legalization efforts have come into conflict with federal prohibitions.

Colorado and Washington became the first states in the country to legalize marijuana for adult use in 2012. Now, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug — even though it remains illegal under federal law.

Marijuana was among the largest cash crops in America — used for textiles, paper, oil, rope and medicine — until the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act imposed registration and reporting requirements as well as taxes on the industry, Swinburne testified.

In 1951, amid concern that marijuana was a gateway to heroin and other more dangerous drugs, the Boggs Act lumped marijuana in with narcotics and made possession punishable by a minimum of two years in prison. Subsequent laws increased criminal penalties, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana as having no acceptable medical use and high potential for abuse.

Sen. Andrew A. Serafini, a Republican from Washington County, questioned whether banking won’t prove difficult for marijuana companies since their product is illegal under federal law.

“There’s a lot of money flowing right now and many banks aren’t going to deal with this,” Serafini said.

But Sen. Brian J. Feldman, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said he knew of banks in the state that are “happily accepting cannabis deposits.”

The work group also heard from William C. Tilburg, the director of policy and government affairs for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, who said medical marijuana is expanding quickly in the state.

The state’s medical marijuana industry has 15 growers, 18 processors and 77 dispensaries, he said.

Retail sales have grown from $2.6 million in January in 2018 to $19.5 million in May. In 2018, medical cannabis sales totaled $109 million for the year.

Task force member Del. Nick J. Mosby, a Baltimore Democrat, said he wants to make sure a diverse group of business owners would benefit from the legalization of marijuana.

Nationally, African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges as white people, despite surveys showing similar usage rates among the races. But business owners benefiting from the new marijuana industry are mainly white, Tilburg testified.

“Less than 1 percent of total businesses in the country are African American owned,” Tilburg testified.

Mosby suggested eliminating caps on how many license-holders could sell marijuana in Maryland.

“Is there an advantage to the residents of Maryland to have an arbitrarily limited cap on the number of licenses, particularly when you look at the fact that this industry is doing so well — $86 million in six months to a handful of folks?”

Ragina C. Ali, manager of Public and Government Affairs for the Maryland Office of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the driver advocacy group is watching the task force’s work closely.

Ali said the organization is “concerned” about the lack of a reliable method to determine whether a person is high while driving a vehicle the way there is for determining a driver’s level of alcohol intoxication.

Members of the committee include Democratic delegates Jay Walker, Vanessa Atterbeary, Eric Bromwell, David Moon and Sandy Rosenberg; Republican delegates Nic Kipke and Kathy Szeliga; Democratic senators Jill P. Carter, Melony Griffith, Guy Guzzone, Douglas J.J. Peters and Jeff Waldstreicher, and Republican senators Stephen Hershey and Chris West.

The discussions in Annapolis include whether legislators should seek to directly legalize recreational marijuana use by passing a bill or take the route of legislation that would set up a referendum for voters on the 2020 ballot.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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(7) comments

jagman

It's well past time to end the prohibition on Marijuana. There has been no decrease in users all this time, well over a trillion and a half wasted tax dollars, legalized theft of private property by police agencies and a ridiculous number of incarcerations. All this for a plant that grows naturally. "Reefer Madness" was a scam. Time to admit it. Also, Maryland may be in a race with Pennsylvania to see which state passes legalization first. Any bets on who goes first?

cleanrunoff

There will always be a contingent of folks who are going to make baseless claims about the inherent dangers of marijuana. Let's look at legitimate claims- inhaling the smoke from anything burning is not good for your lungs. Anyone want to challenge that? Didn't think so. Driving or operating machinery/equipment while impaired by a perception altering drug is a bad idea, no matter if it is cannabis, alcohol, valium, Claritin, or benadryl. Anyone want to challenge that? Now- what specific problem do folks have with cannabis that does not also apply to any other perception altering substance? What makes cannabis so very awful compared to alcohol, tobacco, or Nyquil? Make that list, provide the scientific studies to prove your point, and lets debate. Until then, use common sense. If you drive impaired, be it from alcohol, OTC medication, prescription medication, personal emotional stress, anger or depression, you are a hazard to me and that is a problem. The impairment- not the mechanism of the impairment. You kill or injure me or my family because you have been up all night fighting with your spouse or because you are stoned, it does not matter to me. In both cases, your decision to drive when you are not fit to do so is the problem.

MD1756

While marijuana is illegal you reduce the risk that accidents will happen. Make it legal and it increases the risk. Pretty simple. I agree with your statements about other dangerous driving behaviors (as indicated by my previous post). I think it will also just give people one more area to waste their money on when people need to be saving for reasonably expected but unplanned emergencies (car repair, house repair, illness, etc.) and planned events (i.e., children) that many people haven't properly saved for.

MD1756

The article contains the following “We really need to dig into: What have other states learned? What is different about Maryland?” How about all of the traffic congestion? It's not bad enough with cell phone users, let's add buzzed drivers with the munchies (I have no personal experience) to the mix. If it does pass, I expect the taxes from the marijuana sales to pay for everything including a victim's fund (traffic deaths, second hand smoke, etc) to compensate those harmed if marijuana is legalized. And we should refuse to help anyone in financial straits who is a smoker, unless there is a proven medical need (I would say the same for alcohol drinkers and cigarette smokers, etc. too).

Funshine

People need to pull their heads out of their butts and realize marijuana is dangerous. It should stay illegal. Look at the research! It is not the same as the pot these ding dongs smoked back in the 60's and 70's. It is DANGEROUS and will kill people, as well as damage brains. It is completely irresponsible to consider pushing forward with legalizing weed. How about they spend their time on things we actually voted for them to do, such as work on safer communities and roads?

gabrielshorn2013

"It is DANGEROUS and will kill people" do you mean someone will overdose on it? Could you provide one documented case where this has ever happened?

jagman

Exactly!. I know plenty of people who have ruined their lives with alcohol and a handful who have ruined their lives with heroin ( some who died from an OD). Never have I known of anyone who died from marijuana.

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