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Maryland lawmakers to push for recreational marijuana

A group of Democratic lawmakers in Maryland want the state to join a growing number of others that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, taxing and regulating sales of the drug similar to the way the state deals with alcohol.

Legislators said Monday that adults aged 21 and older in Maryland would be able to possess and grow limit amounts of marijuana if the two bills sponsored by Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, and Del. Mary Washington, D-Baltimore, are approved.

“This legislation will effectively end the failed policy of cannabis prohibition in Maryland and replace it with a much more sensible system,” Madelno said of the legalization and regulation bills he will introduce later this week. “It establishes a thoughtful regulatory scheme and tax structure based on best practices and lessons learned from other states.”

Under the regulation bill, the state would license and regulate marijuana retail stores, manufacturers, testing and cultivation facilities. The tax bill would enact an excise tax of $30 per ounce, paid by cultivators, and a 9 percent sales tax on retail marijuana sales.

The resulting revenue would be specifically designated for a community schools program, substance abuse treatment and prevention, workforce development programs and public education to prevent driving while impaired.

The proposal is modeled after a similar system in Colorado, where voters approved the legal sale of marijuana in 2012. Voters have also approved legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Alaska, Oregon, Maine, Washington, California, Massachusetts and Nevada.

“You can smell the inevitability of this in the air,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, who is proposing a separate bill that would allow voters to decide in 2018 whether to amend the state constitution to legalize the recreational use of the drug.

Moon’s bill was described as a “Plan B” by some of his colleagues, who are hoping that lawmakers will approve the legalization on their own – something no other state legislature has done.

A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature, and having legalization on the ballot could boost turnout for the 2018 elections, when the governor’s office and every seat in the General Assembly will also be on the ballot.

At the same time, letting voters decide may be more palatable to some lawmakers, especially those who opposed previous marijuana-legalization bills.

Moon noted that public support for legal, recreational marijuana has increased in recent years, a change that he compared to what happened in the years before Maryland approved same-sex marriage in 2012.

“I think the shift we’re seeing is probably as fast as we saw with marriage equality,” Moon said.

Last fall, 61 percent of Marylanders said they supported the recreational use of marijuana, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll., up from 49 percent of residents in 2014.

Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore City, who is co-sponsoring Moon’s bill, said Maryland has been making gradual steps toward legalizing marijuana.

The state approved the drug for medical use in 2013, and decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2014. That same year, however, lawmakers killed a measure that would have legalized recreational marijuana. Other efforts since then have failed to move out of committee.

Anderson said the timing is right for Maryland to pass legislation because it can glean from the experience of other states, including Colorado and Washington, that now have legal marijuana markets.

But other lawmakers – including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, The Baltimore Sun reported Monday – say Maryland needs to deal with the problems surrounding its medical marijuana program before taking on recreational legalization.

The state took until 2016 to issue preliminary licenses for medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries, and the drug will not be available to patients until late 2017 at the earliest, amid lawsuits and complaints over how the licenses were awarded.

Miller supported legalizing marijuana in 2014. He did not return requests for comment on Monday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who supported the 2014 effort to decriminalize marijuana, has been “skeptical” of full legalization until “the kinks were worked out in Colorado and Washington,” said his chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes.

She said Busch has not seen Moon’s bill calling for a constitutional amendment.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, D-Baltimore, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, said the group is focused on overhauling the medical marijuana program before throwing its weight behind recreational legalization.

The caucus has proposed legislation to address a lack of racial diversity among the growers approved by the state.

“We need to get medical marijuana program up and running before we move to full-blown legalization,” said Glenn.

Medical marijuana purveyors have split on recreational legalization. Some see adult sales as a natural way to grow their business, while others worry it would undercut the medical market.

A spokesman for the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Association, a collection of authorized medical cannabis growers and processors, said the group is “laser-focused on the important task of providing Maryland patients access to medical cannabis – they’ve waited long enough. Any discussion of adult use is simply a distraction.”

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