The Maryland House advanced legislation Wednesday to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November.
The House gave preliminary approval to two separate measures. The first would put the matter on the ballot. The second includes steps that would be taken on moving forward if voters approve, though issues relating to licensing and taxation would be taken up by lawmakers next year.
Under the House legislation, recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over would be legal July 1, 2023.
A final House vote could come Friday. The Maryland Senate would still need to approve. A separate bill to legalize recreational cannabis is pending in the Senate that would put a regulatory framework in place sooner and would not require a constitutional amendment.
Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, rejected several proposed changes to the legislation sought by Republicans in the House on Wednesday.
One amendment would have only allowed recreational marijuana only in counties where voters approved it, rather than statewide.
Del. Jason Buckel, an Allegany County Republican, said he was concerned western Maryland would end up with too many downsides from legalization, if people from border states pour in to buy marijuana. He said some border communities in other states that have approved recreational marijuana have suffered from negative impacts.
“Our considerations of each individual county are different, and we just ask you to respect that,” Buckel said.
But Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said it would require a constitutional amendment later to add a county, if voters changed their minds. He also said enabling counties to opt out would create confusion about the laws in the state.
“It puts more people at risk of being incarcerated and that's not what we're trying to do by offering this amendment to the voters,” Clippinger, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said.
Now, the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is a civil violation in Maryland, with a fine of up to $100 for a first offense.
The House legislation would make changes in criminal law and create automatic expungements of past marijuana possession convictions.
The bill would allow Marylanders more than 21 years old to possess up to 1.5 ounces of recreational cannabis without penalty. Possession of over 1.5 ounces of cannabis and up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis would be reduced to a civil offense rather than a misdemeanor.
Possession of more than 2.5 ounces would be a misdemeanor with penalties of up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000, also starting Jan. 1.
The legislation also would automatically expunge the conviction of anyone previously found guilty of simple possession of marijuana if it was the only charge in the case. In addition, anyone currently held in a state prison or local jail for a cannabis conviction would be resentenced to end their term of incarceration.
Maryland would be required to develop race- and gender-neutral approaches to addressing the needs of minority and women applicants who seek to participate in the marijuana business. The legislation also creates a fund to help small, minority-owned and women-owned businesses entering the industry.
Currently, 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, have fully legalized marijuana. There also are 37 states, including Maryland, that have legalized medical marijuana.