(The Center Square) – The long and winding path toward legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland continues this legislative session as lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly are holding workgroups and drafting bills.

Members of the state Senate’s Finance Committee had their first glimpse at a pair of House bills — HB 0001 and HB 0837 — at a meeting on March 23. State Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore County, is the sponsor of both pieces of legislation and went before his counterparts in the Senate for the bill hearings.

HB 0001, as proposed, would call for a constitutional amendment by way of a referendum question on a future ballot, perhaps as soon as November. HB 0837 outlines cannabis reform by way of a baseline study that would examine a range of related issues.

“I think we’ve taken a lot of what works in other states,” Clippinger said of the bills, which were formulated through a workgroup he chaired. “I can’t promise that it is going to be perfect.”

One concept Clippinger touched on repeatedly during the hearing was racial equity, in terms of enforcement and opportunities for licensed sellers who would have the opportunity to retail recreational cannabis if it was legalized in Maryland.

“It’s our intention to tackle our first priority, which is to begin to address the overwhelming disparities that have impacted people of color, especially Black and brown people, throughout Maryland, with regard to cannabis,” Clippinger said of the baseline study that is the crux of the cannabis reform proposal.

HB 0837 touches on other issues as well, including the role law enforcement would continue to play in a post-legalization environment.

“We don’t want people to drive impaired,” Clippinger said. “That’s been a huge issue of people in the House. We need to make sure that police officers are able to properly investigate those times when people are driving under the influence of cannabis.”

To that end, Clippinger said he would advocate for better testing mechanisms for impairment, similar to the role breathalyzers play in instances involving alcoholic beverages.

During the hearing, state Sen. Stephen Hershey Jr., R-Queen Anne’s, pressed Clippinger on the rationale behind a referendum.

“This is one of those issues where people feel pretty strongly, one way or the other,” Clippinger said, in response. “I think it’s right to get that sign-off from Marylanders on the November ballot.”

From a procedural standpoint, Hershey said he saw a disconnect between the two House bills. The referendum question in HB 0001 is simple, Hershey said, but the actual multi-layered processes outlined in HB 0837 were viewed by him as more complex.

“Over here (in the Senate), we did work on legislation,” Hershey said. “Last year, we had two bills that dealt with the legalization. They stalled. This year, we have a bill that does address the industry, that does address licensing, that does address what I think people believe they’re really voting on when they vote on this question.”

State Sen. Brian Feldman, D-Montgomery County, struck a more conciliatory tone in his comments to Clippinger.

“I think we look forward to working with you on this,” Feldman said. “You see some of the questions and issues that have popped up, and it’s our two chambers here.”


David Fidlin

The Center Square contributor

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