Before Coronavirus Adjournment, Crucial Cannabis Legislation Passes House

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In response to the coronavirus, it was announced on Sunday, March 15 that the legislative session would end early—wrapping up on March 18 rather than April 6. As a result, a number of bills will be put on pause, and Senate President Bill Ferguson along with House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said they would be passing the most significant legislation until the adjournment and pass “any remaining critical legislation” during a special session scheduled for the end of May. 

What is considered “critical legislation” has not been clarified (a floor session on Saturday dealt with the crucial Kirwan education funding and the coronavirus; the state budget would be an obvious priority) but among the many bills in limbo are a couple of crucial cannabis-related bills. 

At the start of session, the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition detailed its four “consensus policy goals.” Those were: House Bill 550, which would increase the decriminalization threshold in Maryland from 10 grams to one ounce; House Bill 83 (Senate Bill 699), which would move courts to “automatically expunge” all records related to cannabis possession charges; House Bill 331 (Senate Bill 605) which would establish the standards for providing medicinal cannabis to people in public school with a legitimate medicinal need; and House Bill 73, which would do away with the current provision preventing someone who has a medicinal cannabis prescription from also having a license to own a gun.

Of those four, HB 331/SB 331 is pending in the House Health and Government Operations Committee and HB 773 is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. Both have had hearings. The hearing for HB 331 was particularly moving with testimony from 15-year-old Connor Sheffield, who takes medicinal cannabis for his autoimmune disease Gastro-Intestinal Dysmotility and must currently leave school grounds to take his THC tincture.

Over the past two weeks, however, HB 550 and HB 83/SB 699 have moved along. Both would have significant beneficial impacts on the criminal justice system as it pertains to cannabis. 

HB 550 puts Maryland’s decriminalization threshold on the same level as many states that have decriminalized cannabis. Only Missouri still has a 10-gram threshold, while Hawaii has just a three-gram threshold. Since 2014, when cannabis was decriminalized in Maryland, the number of people arrested for cannabis has decreased, but those being arrested for misdemeanor possession or intent to distribute is still staggering. At a March 6 hearing for House Bill 1400, a bill related to cannabis legalization that has just about zero chance of passing, Delegate David Moon pointed out how many people are still jammed up by the system for cannabis.

“There were 15,443 Maryland residents who were hit with a criminal offense for possession of over 10 grams, so we set the line for decriminalization at 10 grams and here, law enforcement went and found another 15,000 people to criminalize over this offense,” Moon said. “Beyond that, another 17,000 had a police interaction that led to them being hit with a ticket—granted that’s just a ticket—but that’s 17,000 more police interactions over possession under 10 grams and so if you think that 33,000 ‘worthwhile’ police interactions.”

Increasing the decriminalization threshold—especially if Maryland is not going to see legalization in the coming year—will reduce that 33,000 significantly. HB 550 has passed its third reading (with a vote of 93 yay to 44 nay) and has been referred to Judicial Proceedings in the Senate (there was no analogous Senate Bill). The Maryland Marijuana Policy Coalition has set up a form to encourage Maryland senators to support HB 550.

HB 83/SB 699 has been referred to as an “automatic expungement” bill which as many including NORML Maryland’s Jones explained, is a bit of a misnomer. What the bill really does is get the process expunging a cannabis possession charge started without the person charged with possession having to do anything—the process itself is still complicated and requires a great deal of work. An amendment to the bill changed the language of the bill to, “Charge of Possession of Marijuana – Removal From Case Search,” to address this and more broadly, the bill was amended to not refer to “all court records and police records” but only Maryland Case Search, the online and publicly accessible database that lists criminal charges.

HB 83/SB 699 were approved by the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Coronavirus 3D render by Lightspring / Shutterstock

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