By Joe Murchison

Maryland voters could make recreational use of marijuana legal as soon as July 1, 2023, if they approve a constitutional amendment in this fall’s general election.

cannabis photo
Stephen Quade, a dispensary agent at Green Point Wellness on Route 1 near Main Street, sells cannabis products to authorized medical users.
Photo credit: Joe Murchison

The Maryland General Assembly passed the ballot measure, Question 4, in April, with most Democrats supporting it and most Republicans in opposition. If voters approve the measure, it would legalize the possession and use of up to 1.5 ounces (42 grams) of marijuana ( cannabis) by people 21 years old and up. 

The General Assembly previously had decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams.

Users who possessed up to 2.5 ounces (70 grams) also would not be subject to criminal prosecution but could be assessed a civil fine of up to $250. Those possessing more than 2.5 ounces would be subject to punishment of up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

If passed, the measure would make Maryland the 20th state in the nation to legalize recreational use of cannabis, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group.

Legal marijuana use is not new to Maryland. In 2017, the state launched a medical marijuana program for physician-approved users. By the end of 2021, the state had issued 19 grower licenses, 20 processor licenses and 95 dispensary licenses, according to the General Assembly’s Department of Legislative Services. Two of those dispensaries are in the city of Laurel.

All four of the District 21 state legislators, who represent Laurel in the General Assembly, voted in favor of putting the question on the ballot.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe said, “Obviously, people have different perspectives on this issue,” and the ballot measure allows them to express their opinion.

Del. Ben Barnes said he supports legalization. “It’s just a no-brainer. The purpose is discouraging any ongoing black market.” 

Barnes said that a legalized, state-regulated market will better prevent those under 21 from using cannabis and will end unfairness in the enforcement of present laws. “Clearly we’re locking young people up in a real disparate way by race and income level,” he said. 

He said regulating the use of marijuana is similar to regulating the use of alcohol, which is “much more pervasive” than cannabis and often causes worse domestic-abuse and health problems.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk agreed that “current criminalization of marijuana has not worked.” She said that, in addition to racially discriminatory enforcement, the illegal, unregulated market can result in overdose deaths from dealers lacing cannabis with dangerous chemicals such as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug. 

Peña-Melnyk acknowledged that marijuana itself poses health threats, particularly to young people. She said the General Assembly needs to do a “delicate balancing act.” She said that assembly members should study the effects of legalization in order to update regulations where necessary while also conducting education campaigns on the drug’s ill effects.

Del. Mary Lehman agreed that marijuana poses health threats.

“It definitely can be psychologically addictive, where people cannot stop using,” she said, adding  “Criminalizing it over many years has been a mistake.” 

Lehman said many lives have been disproportionately harmed by the criminalization. Close to half a million Marylanders have been convicted of marijuana possession, she said, and “people with felony convictions have a really hard time finding a job.”

If voters approve the ballot measure, Lehman said, past marijuana-possession convictions will be automatically expunged, and those in jail for possession (if that is their only charge) could petition for release. Lehman noted that the ballot measure would not allow individuals to smoke marijuana in public. Peña-Melnyk predicted that the ballot measure would pass. “Seventy percent of Marylanders support it,” according to recent polls, she said.

If passed, the measure would also allow people to grow up to two marijuana plants, would create a fund to aid women and minorities in setting up cannabis businesses, and would funnel 30% of any tax revenue from cannabis sales into community-development projects in lower-income areas. The General Assembly would be required to develop a regulatory structure for marijuana production and sales during its 2023 session, which runs from January to April.   

The general election is Nov. 8, with early voting starting Oct. 27.