The Maryland State House. Credit: Preservation Maryland / Flickr

As a proposed adult-use legalization bill winds through the Maryland House, debates are opening up over social equity, decriminalization, and additional paths of access for both medical and the over-21 crowd.

The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Feb. 14 in support of House Bill 837, a companion bill to House Bill 1, which sets up a referendum to legalize recreational cannabis.

“When they talk about equity and inclusion, they aren’t thinking about people on the street corner,” Monica Cooper, the co-founder of the Maryland Justice Project (MJP), said. “How many [applicants] are going to be Black, hispanic, or women?”

That’s a question Chairman Luke Clippinger aims to answer.

Sponsored by State Delegate Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore), the bill aims to provide recreational adult-use by July of 2023 after a November 2022 referendum. The bill includes initial steps toward expungement of previous criminal charges and social equity funding for minority and women-owned businesses.

“The bill implements a first step to building an equitable licensing structure and regulations to ensure diverse business owners and entrepreneurs to participate in the cannabis industry,” said Clippinger, who is calling for expanding the decriminalization of possession up to 1.5 ounces. The current law calls for a civil fine of up to $100 for just 10 grams.

“If you get a delegate like Clippinger, it will get some traction,” Cooper said. “He is a [former] prosecutor. So he has seen Black and brown people who bear the brunt of arrests related to marijuana and in the spirit of equity, he is trying to do something different.”

Cooper’s work with the MJP is to help ex-offenders and potential employers understand their responsibility to the community. Any cannabis bill with details of involving social equity or laws surrounding criminal charges are of utmost importance to her.

“The questions here are the same as they are all around the country, mostly coming from more conservative types of representatives. The argument around [marijuana] stays the same. When you have this new industry, you have to figure out regulations,” Cooper continued.

Decreasing underground market traction will require research. Common sense will conclude that a high-priced legal market, regulated perfectly or not, will not do away with illegal activity, says Cooper. It’s the beginning of a process to implement fiscal elements relating to licensing fees to the prices adult users will see on retail shelves.

“There is a sweet spot that needs to be found,” Dr. John Hudak, a policy analyst versed in cannabis legalization, said. “If you set (licensing) fees too low, you will have a flood of people into the market and cannabis will crash and businesses will close. If the price is twice what it is on the black market you will not see consumers transition out of that market.

“You have to think about the producers and the consumers.”

Cooper furthered that point by maintaining her stance regarding the importance of integrating the underground market into legalization. There are concerns on whether uprooting the underground market also includes integrating underground operators into the legalization fold.

“That is where people go to make money when they can’t get jobs because they have a background, they have a conviction,” she said. “To put a dent in the underground market, it means the state has to figure out a way to include people from that market in this billion dollar industry.”

A senior policy analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, Olivia Nagule, also appeared during the hearing, and while she and the MPP support the bill, they believe there is room for some amendments to increase the strength of HB 837. Among those suggested additions are a quicker decriminalization process, a more clearly defined limit on personal use, and a push for allowing users to grow their own plants at home, another hotly debated topic for every state considering adult-use legalization.

“Securely cultivating cannabis at home is the only way for some people who can benefit from cannabis medicinally to access it, as medical expenses and a reduced ability to work make the price of cannabis out of reach,” Naugle said. “Home cultivation should be included and effective immediately upon voter approval.”