The Maryland State House in Annapolis. Credit: Preservation Maryland / Flickr

Last week, lawmakers in Maryland approved an initiative to include adult use cannabis legalization in November’s ballot.

House Bill 1 – based around decriminalization – passed the House in a 96-34 vote and in the Senate, 29-17. House Bill 837, the companion piece of legislation that establishes the first steps to adult use legalization, passed the House, 92-37, and the Senate, 30-15.

“I think the referendum is a signal that [lawmakers] really want the voters to make the decision,” said Mackie Barch, Chief Cannabis Officer for Culta and chairman of CanMD, a trade association in the state. “They really want the voters to decide because that’s how uncomfortable they are.

“Although Maryland is known to be somewhat progreesive, it’s become apparent that [lawmakers] are still uncomfortable with adult use. They are taking a very measured approach in their transition to adult use. It’s become very clear that it is going to be a slow progression.”

Barch says he expects voter enthusiasm for legalization to continue this November. But using New Jersey as an example of when a positive election outcome happens, such as with that state’s November 2020 election, until when adult use programs are up in running (New Jersey’s is still pending as of April 5), Maryland could be years away from selling the first product in stores.

“We aren’t printing software,” said Barch. “For argument’s sake, let’s say this thing gets dragged out to the legislative session of 2024, or even 2023, but then they have to hold it up for a disparity study. Then you are going to need months for applications, months to get them back. After the initial awards, then people have to start building which could take another year. Then to grow it you may need another six months. It could be 2026.

“If you gave me all the money in the world and said, move as fast as you can, you still have to deal with zoning codes and the supply chain and architectural plans. There’s no fast way to turn up an industry, even in the best case scenarios it is still going to be a slow roll.

“People should have realistic expectations of 2026 or 2027. It seems like a million years from now.”

The disparity study could take some time to complete. It will be used as a part of a social equity effort in the state, helpful in determining if any new regulation in cannabis will adversely affect minority or women-owned businesses.

Maryland trailed behind other states when it came to legalizing sports betting as well, with a ballot measure approved in 2020 in Maryland and licenses awarded in 2021. The state expects to have mobile gaming up and running later this year.

“They held [sports betting] back to get people on equal footing,” said Barch. “If they do that with cannabis, it could go on for years and years.

“The good news is that it’s coming. It just might not be as fast as people may think it will be.”

In a poll released by Goucher College in March, cannabis legalization garnered 62 percent support in the state.. 

“HB 837 includes important first steps and we look forward to working with lawmakers on equitable legalization moving forward,” said Olivia Naugle, senior policy analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Should voters approve HB1, HB837 includes important provisions that will reduce criminalization for cannabis possession.

“Marylanders have long awaited a new approach to cannabis policy and the passage of these bills is a promising step forward.”