Pubdate: Mon, 26 Feb 2018
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2018 The Baltimore Sun Company
Authors: Michael Dresser and Ian Duncan


Pot is hot for Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis this year.

The General Assembly is considering more than two dozen bills on
marijuana -- or cannabis, as the substance is called when used as a

For marijuana enthusiasts, full legalization for recreational purposes
is at the top of the wish list. Bills in both the House and the Senate
would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to let
voters decide whether to replace prohibition with a system of
regulated sales and taxation.

Kate Bell, legislative counsel for the Washington-based Marijuana
Policy Project, said voters are ready to decide the issue.

"It's an election year. It's an incredibly popular issue with the
public," Bell said. "But lawmakers seem to be lagging behind."

To pass, a constitutional amendment must be approved by two-thirds of
both the House and the Senate and then by voters. The governor may not
veto it.

The legalization amendment would allow people 21 and older to grow and
use marijuana. The Senate held a hearing on it last week. The House
has scheduled a hearing next month.

Legislative leaders are warning enthusiasts not to get their hopes up.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is on the record as supporting
legalization, but is unlikely to move forward unless he's sure the
House will too. The House's Democratic leaders doubt they have the 85
votes it would take to put the question on the ballot.

"Putting my personal feelings aside, I don't think that is going to
happen this year," said state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore
County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

If legalization doesn't pass this year, Bell says, her group hopes two
decriminalization bills succeed.

The measures, both sponsored by Zirkin, would expand the state's
current decriminalization scheme -- in place since 2014 -- by making
it harder for police to bring felony charges based on possession.

One would nearly triple the amount of marijuana a person could possess
without committing a felony from 10 grams to 1 ounce. Another would
specify that people found with an ounce or less are not committing the
felony of possession with intent to distribute.

Zirkin said police are still charging people with 8 grams of marijuana
as distributors because they had the drug in more than one plastic
bag. He said that's not a responsible use of police resources. He said
other states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts have
set an ounce as the limit.

"We're on an island alone with the 10 grams," Zirkin said. He said he
couldn't yet gauge the bills' prospects, but believed any vote would
be close.

Other bills would tweak Maryland's medical cannabis system. The system
started to get off the ground in late 2017 after years of false starts.

Different proposals would:

* Limit the ways in which cannabis may be advertised,

* Authorize the use of cannabis for treating heroin addiction,

* Allow businesses to deduct cannabis-related expenses on their taxes, and

* Prohibit employers from discriminating against medical cannabis

Republican-backed measures would allow medical cannabis patients to
buy guns.

The bills are all in their early stages, awaiting either committee
hearings or votes.

Lawmakers are also considering legislation that would increase the
number of growers' licenses and encourage greater racial diversity in
the medical cannabis industry, a high priority for legislative leaders
after a deal to achieve those ends fell apart at the end of last
year's session. While legislative leaders hoped to get the bill done
early in the session, it has languished in a House committee since a
hearing last month.

The Trump administration announced Thursday that it was rescinding an
Obama-era policy that had allowed states to legalize marijuana,
raising questions about how Maryland's fledgling medical cannabis
industry might be affected.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the
Legislative Black Caucus, said last week that she's not worried about
the delay. She said the House Health and Government Operations
Committee has been taking its time in an effort to accommodate the
concerns of her caucus members. She's optimistic the legislation could
receive committee approval this week.

Glenn said she's been communicating with the two Senate committee
chairs who will deal with the legislation, Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton,
who chairs the Finance Committee, and Joan Carter Conway, who chairs
the Education, Health and the Environment Committee, and knows of no
substantial impediments to passage there.

"Once it gets out of the House, I don't expect any problems," she

Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the
House health committee, was a bit more cautious. She expects the bill
to go to the floor late this week or early next week.

Pendergrass said she gets nervous when legislation goes too deep into
the 90-day session without a resolution. But she's optimistic the bill
will pass.

"With a bill like this, there are always concerns, but I think we're
OK," she said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt