The Maryland Senate has advanced a bill to legalize marijuana sales to prepare the state for pending legalization, adopting a series of amendments ahead of a final vote in the chamber that’s expected soon.
The legislation from Sens. Brian Feldman (D) and Antonio Hayes (D) passed on second reading in the Senate on Thursday, an action that comes days after the measure cleared a committee stop.
The House of Delegates already approved its companion version this month. The bills were identical when introduced, but the House and Senate bills have now been amended in different ways.
Members of the Senate first accepted a large-scale amendment that largely aligns the legislation with the House version in many respects. That includes approving numerous technical revisions, changing polices on the structure of the advisory commission and amending definitions related to delta-8 THC that could impact the state’s existing hemp industry. The definition of a social equity applicant was also changed to mirror the House legislation.
The body adopted several revisions that differ from the House bill, however, for example setting the sales tax on cannabis at a consist nine percent rate, creating a new independent agency to regulate marijuana, requiring a process for verifying ID for cannabis consumers at retailers and prohibiting on-site consumption of combustable products.
Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) said last week that there were a number of issues that lawmakers needed to address before advancing the measure, including input from existing hemp businesses who’ve expressed concern about possible ramifications of the measure as introduced.
The top senator said that “a lot of legislators are struggling with it right now,” describing it as a “tough issue” that will be addressed as the bill moves.
Prior to the House vote on its version of the regulations bill this month, the Senate president said that he expects that bicameral lawmakers will work to “resolve” differences between the two versions, “potentially” in a conference committee, “sooner than later.”
“We want to get this moving. There’s a lot of pieces to this,” he said. “And I think, you know, there’s no such thing as perfect in legislation. It’s doing the best you can to mitigate any of the potential unintended consequences that we can imagine today.”
The Senate also rejected proposed floor amendments on Thursday that would have appropriated portions of cannabis tax revenue to medical emergency services and an education fund.
Members further defeated a proposed revision to give certain existing hemp and CBD businesses one year to close shop, instead of three months. Other amendments that failed would have required regulators to study possible implications of canopy size limits on the industry and extended the time for medical cannabis delivery services to continue operating by six months.
The body also rejected a revision to add members of law enforcement and the state Highway Safety Office to the cannabis regulatory body and require five years of reports on public safety implications of the reform. Another defeated amendment would distribute cannabis tax revenue at the municipal level, rather than to counties.
Senators also shot down amendments to reduce fees for licensed retailers and to allow municipalities and counties to enact stricter regulations on public cannabis smoking.
Another rejected amendment would have required the social equity office to develop an assistance program to promote industry participation while providing a pathway for certain people convicted of possession with intent to distribute to work in the industry.
Here’s what the SB 516 as amended would accomplish:
Cannabis would be taxed at nine percent. Medical marijuana patients would be exempt from the tax.
Thirty percent of marijuana tax revenue would go toward a community reinvestment fund for at least the next 10 years. The bill further calls for 1.5 percent of revenue to go to localities, 1.5 percent to counties and 1.5 percent each for a Cannabis Public Health Fund and the Cannabis Business Assistance Fund.
A new Maryland Cannabis Administration would be responsible for regulating the program.
Existing medical cannabis dispensaries would be converted into dual licensees at the same time that legalization takes effect on July 1 if they’ve paid a fee. Regulators would need to start approving additional marijuana business licenses by July 1, 2024.
Social equity applicants would need to have 65 percent ownership by people who have lived in disproportionately impacted areas for at least five of the past 10 years, attended public school in such an area for at least five years or meet other criterial based on a disparity study.
A Capital Access Program would be created under the state Department of Commerce to promote industry opportunities for social equity applicants and provide low-interest loans.
The bill stipulates that $5 million would be appropriated annually for grants to existing medical cannabis dispensaries that form “meaningful partnerships” with social equity applicants that involves mentorship, training and/or shared business space.
Localities could not impose additional taxes, nor could they prohibit existing medical cannabis businesses that convert to dual licenses from operating in their area.
Medical cannabis patients would be able to grow up to four plants for personal use, rather than two under the current law. They would not have to pay taxes on medical marijuana products.
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The House version was amended in several ways before being approved on the floor. For example, it was revised to allocate 1.5 percent of cannabis tax revenue to counties and a requirement was removed stipulating that the head of the regulatory commission needed to be a member of law enforcement.
Also, the House panel adopted an amendment that eliminates a 200 license cap for delivery services, with members determining that the category would be covered under the separate micro-dispensary licenses.
Members also revised the legislation’s definition of a social equity applicant, clarifying that a disproportionately impacted area is one that has experienced more than 150 percent the state’s average cannabis possession charge rate over the past 10 years. Also, social equity applicant eligibility was changed to include those who attended for at least two years either an HBCU or one of certain other institutions of higher learning in the state.
The measure was further amended to prohibit localities from imposing licensing, operating or other fees or requirements that are greater or more burdensome than businesses “with a similar impact on the area.”
The House bill was also revised to include language allowing both adults and medical patients to purchase plants and other cultivation supplies through the licensed market.
Finally, the chamber’s version now says that existing medical marijuana businesses have the option to either convert to a dual-market retailer, selling products to both adults and medical patients, or sell their license to another operator.
Because the bills are considered emergency legislation that would take effect immediately, they must be approved with three-fifths of the vote in both chambers to be enacted. The legalization of possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis takes effect on July 1, putting pressure on lawmakers to get regulations in place for commerce.
A spokesperson for Gov. Wes Moore (D) told The Baltimore Banner that the governor considers the proposal “a well-crafted piece of legislation and is looking forward to future collaboration with the legislature.”
The bill is partly a product of extensive work from bipartisan and bicameral lawmakers who were part of House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Workgroup, which was formed in 2021 by Speaker Adrienne Jones (D).
Members have held numerous meetings to inform future regulations following Maryland voters’ approval of a legalization referendum during last year’s election, which triggered the implementation of complementary legislation covering rules for basic policies like possession and low-level home cultivation.
In addition to legalizing the purchase and possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis for adults starting this summer, the legislation will also remove criminal penalties for possession of up to 2.5 ounces. Adults 21 and older will be allowed to grow up to two plants for personal use and gift cannabis without remuneration.
Past convictions for conduct made legal under the proposed law will be automatically expunged, and people currently serving time for such offenses will be eligible for resentencing. The legislation makes it so people with convictions for possession with intent to distribute can petition the courts for expungement three years after serving out their time.
Parts of the referendum took effect at the beginning of the year. Possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis became a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine, with a $250 fine in place for more than 1.5 ounces and up to 2.5 ounces.
Adult-use legalization began to advance through Maryland’s legislature in the 2021 session, but no votes were ultimately held. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing that year on a legalization bill, which followed a House Judiciary Committee hearing on a separate cannabis proposal.
Maryland legalized medical cannabis through an act of the legislature in 2012. Two years later, a decriminalization law took effect that replaced criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana with a civil fine of $100 to $500.
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Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.