Maryland has a complicated relationship with marijuana — perhaps more complicated than any other state in the Union. Maryland has long had among the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession, but back when Maryland was a colony and in the infancy of statehood, hemp fields nearly matched tobacco in their popularity. In the 1670s, England was so desperate for the money that cannabis would bring that it offered every colonist two pounds of tobacco for every pound of hemp delivered to the market.
Maryland’s marijuana landscape is much different today than it was in the late 17th century, but it is also much different than it was even a decade ago. The rapid changes in legislation and police behavior with regards to weed has many Marylanders and Baltimoreans confused. Here’s a quick rundown on how weed works in Maryland, going into the third decade of the 21st century.
Despite Maryland’s long history with cannabis, growth, and possession of marijuana has been illegal throughout the state since about the 1930s, when across the U.S., states began passing restrictions and bans on the drug. Penalties harshened throughout the 1940s and ‘50s when various legislation increased the mandatory minimum punishment for first-time marijuana offenders to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. Then, the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs pushed for a three-strikes law, increasing mandatory sentencing to upwards of 25 years plus the opportunity for capital punishment for repeat offenders.
Since then, attitudes about marijuana have changed. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, judicial decisions, as well as the endurance and growing prominence of cannabis culture, encouraged greater acceptance of marijuana use. Debates raged over whether state or federal marijuana laws ruled, especially as more states began legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.
In 2013, Maryland passed its own medical marijuana laws. These use strict language to explain who can and cannot sell marijuana, where marijuana can come from and who can apply for a medical marijuana license. As more dispensaries open across the state — and as more Marylanders and Baltimoreans pursue legal marijuana licenses — the state has been forced to reconsider how it approaches persecution for marijuana possession.
Not long after Maryland voted to legalize medicinal marijuana use, the state also began rolling back aggressive tactics for controlling illegal recreational use. In 2014, the state decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and drug paraphernalia. Thus, Baltimoreans over the age of 21 who carry less than 10 grams of marijuana are subject only to a civil offense and a fine of $100 or less, and possession of tools like rolling papers or pipes comes with no fine whatsoever. Still, anyone found with this small amount of weed will need to participate in a drug education program, and using marijuana in public carries a fine of $500.
Even for larger-scale marijuana crimes, like possession of larger amounts of marijuana or the sale of paraphernalia, decriminalization efforts have drastically reduced punishments. Instead of the 25 years and $20,000 mandated by federal law in the 20th century, Maryland imposes between one and five years of incarceration for possession of more than 10 grams intended for personal use. For those who illegally distribute marijuana, the penalties remain higher, especially for “kingpins” who might earn between 20 and 40 years and a fine around $1 million.
The success of decriminalization and medicinal marijuana legalization, as well as the success of other states’ legalization of recreational use, has inspired Maryland to investigate the feasibility of enacting similar legislation. At the beginning of 2019, the state organized a task force assigned with understanding whether marijuana legalization is right for Maryland. Some questions the task force was tasked with include:
What have other states learned from legalization efforts?
How would legalization affect crime rates in Maryland?
How does legalization affect health?
What kind of taxes should impact the state marijuana industry?
Ultimately, will legalization have a positive effect?
It is more than likely that bills pushing the legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults may appear during the 2020 legislative session. This could open Maryland up to more than the handful of growers and dispensaries currently operating under a medicinal license, allowing all Baltimoreans access to the best weed strains — as well as the best schools and public works, which is likely what tax revenue from recreational cannabis sales would be devoted to.
Maryland’s relationship with marijuana is older than the state, but that doesn’t make it any easier for Maryland’s legislators to decide how to handle the drug and those who use it. Those interested in Baltimore’s weed laws should stay tuned for more changes in the coming months and years.