While cannabis legalization bills are getting introduced in state legislatures across the United States, Maryland is one state where such a bill is picking up momentum.
On Tuesday, the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition held a virtual press conference to bring together supporters of HB 32, also known as the Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, Inclusion, Restoration, and Rehabilitation Act of 2021, introduced by Maryland State Delegate Jazz Lewis. The bill already has support from groups like the Working Families Party and Progressive Maryland, in addition to local and national cannabis advocacy organizations.
Lewis decided to push for legalization when he learned he would become a father, he said, adding that he wanted “to make sure that we start passing systems-level and life-changing legislation so that my boy wouldn’t go through a number of things that I had to go through growing up as a young Black man in this country.”
If the bill is signed into law, Maryland would join neighboring New Jersey, where voters approved adult use legalization at the ballot box in November. In neighboring Virginia, a bill backed by Governor Ralph Northam is making its way through the state legislature. And in neighboring Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have repeatedly called for legalization, though they have faced opposition in the legislature.
Unlike in these states, Maryland’s effort does not have the explicit backing of the governor. In fact, in 2019, Gov. Larry Hogan said in an interview that he does not support cannabis legalization, and, last year, Hogan vetoed a bill that would have shielded past cannabis possession arrests from public view.
“Cannabis legalization is very popular in the state of Maryland. And I’m sure he would want to stay on that side of the discussion,” Lewis said. “I’m going to try to talk with him on this issue. I’m not going to assume he’s going to veto it. Every year is different.”
The bill, in addition to allowing for cannabis possession and sales for adults 21 and older, allows for home cultivation, which is not allowed in New Jersey and has emerged as a potential sticking point in Virginia. It provides for the automatic expungement of some cannabis-related records, and it allocates 20% of cannabis tax revenue toward Maryland’s four HBCUs, which is a first as far as adult use cannabis proposals go.
Among the more than half a dozen speakers during Tuesday’s event were Joel Madden, of the band Good Charlotte, who was born in the state, and Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP and the co-director of Progressive Maryland’s cannabis legalization campaign. Each person who spoke focused primarily on justice and equity.
“I’m not a politician and I don’t own a cannabis business. I’m not even really a recreational cannabis user,” Madden said, adding, “I just think the questions are: who should benefit from this the most? And I think we all would agree that it’s the people who lost the most.”
As the American Civil Liberties Union has highlighted for years, Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite comparable cannabis use rates.
“Cannabis is legal for white use. It is not legal for black use,” Jealous said. “The racial disparities when it comes to the enforcement are plain. Most people don’t look at them, but when they do, they shock you as they did me as president of the NAACP. And that’s why when I ran for governor [of Maryland], I made the legalization of cannabis core to my campaign.”