Working the last Saturday of the General Assembly session, the House of Delegates churned through dozens of pieces of legislation, including passing a final version of a bill to stand up a recreational cannabis market in Maryland.
The House also moved, with limited debate, final versions of two of the three major gun bills of the legislative session. The third and most controversial measure will be up for a final vote on Monday, the last day of the 90-day session.
The Senate did not meet Saturday, opting instead to work until close to midnight on Friday. Both chambers will be in for marathon sessions on Monday before adjourning sine die at midnight.
The cannabis bill was the object of two floor debates in the House on Saturday totaling about an hour, with Republicans asking pointed questions and offering amendments that were resoundingly rejected along party lines.
Ultimately, the House version of the bill passed by a vote of 104-35 and is headed to the desk of Gov. Wes Moore (D), who has promised to sign it. The Senate version, which is now identical to the House bill, was given preliminary approval and will receive a final vote Monday.
House Economic Matters Committee Chair C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), the chief House sponsor of the legislation, largely played defense on Saturday, as Republicans tried to poke holes and point out flaws.
“Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good,” he said by way of a closing argument. “We’ve put a lot of thought into this bill.”
Passing the cannabis measure and getting the recreational industry off the ground on July 1 has been a major priority of legislative leaders this session.
Voters last November passed a constitutional amendment authorizing the creation of a recreational industry that would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and older, and under the legislation moving through the House and Senate, the state’s medical cannabis industry would be absorbed into the recreational marketplace. The approximately 100 companies that hold licenses to operate medical dispensaries are at the front of the line to get recreational licenses, if they want them — a contentious provision that has been heavily debated throughout the General Assembly session. To obtain the new license, these medical dispensaries must pay the state 8% of their 2022 gross revenues.
On the House floor Saturday, Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said forcing companies that had invested so heavily in the medical cannabis marketplace amounted to “a taking,” particularly if they did not want to enter the recreational business.
“It seems unconstitutional to take away a lawful business enterprise just because someone has chosen not to enter the recreational cannabis market,” she said.
“I find this argument hilarious,” Wilson shot back, noting that most medical cannabis companies rushed to enter the marketplace knowing full well that the state was likely to legalize marijuana eventually and wanted a foot in the door. Letting them bid for recreational licenses first, he said, “enraged some people who look like me” — a reference to the fact that none of the state’s original medical dispensary licensees were people of color.
House Republicans offered two amendments to the Senate version of the bill: One, from Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Lower Shore), would have changed a provision in the legislation saying a dispensary has to be at a mile from a school, library, playground, recreation center or public park instead of 500 feet, as the bill is written now. Wilson argued that in Ocean City, which Hartman represents, no dispensary would be allowed at all.
“I can’t say I’m heartbroken by that,” Hartman replied.
The measure was rejected, 37-103.
Another proposed amendment, from Del. Robert B. Long (R-Baltimore County), would have prevented the driver or occupant of a motor vehicle from smoking or vaping cannabis in the presence of a minor. Wilson pointed out that the legislation was a regulatory mechanism and did not cover law enforcement issues, and the amendment was defeated, 40-97.
Szeliga later said she did not intend to offer any amendments to the Senate bill when it is up for a final vote Monday. Chances are, no other Republican will, either.
Meanwhile, the House on Saturday gave its final approval to a House Bill 824, which raises the age for legal gun possession to 21 and expands prohibitions on who cannot possess firearms. The bill, from House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), passed on a 98-40 vote, with Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s) joining Republicans in opposing it. The measure does not have a Senate companion so it is heading to the governor’s desk.
The House also voted 102-37 to support a bill from Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) that strengthens provisions for storing firearms and ammunition. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), has already passed in both chambers and is headed for the governor’s desk.
While the House worked for about six hours Thursday, across the street, Moore and his family hosted an Easter egg hunt and related activities on the grounds of Government House for a few hundred guests. The administration indicated it will become an annual event.
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