While Maryland’s newly launched medical cannabis program remains the focus for many lawmakers and state-licensed operations, the state is already eyeing adult-use legalization this legislative session.
The Maryland chapter of NORML has been working in partnership with other organizations under the umbrella of the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition (MCPC) to get citizens involved in policy reform. NORML is supporting two bills this session that aim to let voters weigh in on a ballot measure this November and create a legal system for adult-use should the ballot initiative pass, said Luke Jones, the leader of NORML’s Maryland chapter.
“[Elected] officials and those familiar with the legislative process in Annapolis have advised us that it’s easier for elected representatives to vote in favor of a ‘let the voters decide’ bill rather than voting for legalization directly,” Jones said. Public opinion polls within the state have consistently shown that support for legalizing personal-use amounts of cannabis is steadily rising, he adds.
The two companion bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate—HB 1264 and SB 1039—are legislatively referred constitutional amendment referendum bills, meaning that if passed, they will allow for an adult-use ballot initiative presented to voters this November.
“In many, many states, you would go and collect signatures from citizens and once you amass a certain number of signatures, you can then use that signature collection process to put a question on the ballot for voters to consider,” Jones said. “There is no voter-initiated ballot measure process in Maryland.”
During the last legislative session, competing legislative efforts were presented in the form of a legislatively referred constitutional amendment effort and a taxation and regulation legalization bill. While those initiatives failed, MCPC learned from the experience.
“We have reached a consensus within the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition to not have multiple, competing legislative efforts within the general assembly at the same time, like we did last year,” Jones said, adding, “We believe if [adult-use] legalization is put on the ballot for a vote, it will pass.”
The Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee has held a hearing on SB 1039 but has not yet voted. The House hearing on HB 1264 is upcoming, according to Jones.
The right to home cultivation and the need for the Maryland General Assembly to promulgate regulations for the expanded adult-use market are two key provisions in the legislation for the constitutional amendment and adult-use legalization in the state, Jones noted. “The goal is … to regulate the sale and distribution of cannabis in Maryland rather than maintaining this illicit market which we have now.”
Full legalization faces obstacles in Maryland, such as interest in maintaining the limited number of medical cannabis business licenses in the state, Jones said.
“There are vested monied interests in maintaining the current economic structure, which is a state-supported, artificial monopoly,” he said.
In addition, many legislators have indicated that Maryland is not ready for adult-use and that decriminalization is enough progress for now, Jones added.
“There’s still a lack of information available to these legislators,” he said. “They still have not evolved with the pace of change across the country.”
Progress in the Medical Program
The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC) is the state regulatory body charged with administering the newly launched medical marijuana program, and regulations continue to evolve.
“As we are part of a totally new industry in Maryland, we have had to remain nimble, anticipating and responding to changes in the market,” said Wendy Bronfein, director of marketing and product development for Curio Wellness, a vertically integrated medical cannabis company in the state.
“They’re trying to make this a real bona fide medical program, as they should,” Jones said. “Under a true medical program, there is strong logic for limiting the number of producers because you want to have highly replicable, consistent products. That is easier to achieve with fewer producers. When you have too many producers, the range of the products can be all over the map.”
Although supply and demand in the state remain largely unknown, Jones estimates that Maryland is producing cannabis at about 20 percent of its total capacity, and the first sales began in December. According to the MMCC’s website, 14 growers, 12 processors and 30 dispensaries were licensed as of Jan. 29.
“The overall medical cannabis market in Maryland will not stabilize until 18-24 months after the first sales started,” Jones said. “People can expect the supply and price for medical cannabis in Maryland to fluctuate and to not stabilize until sometime after December of 2019.”
The program has faced criticism over how much time it has taken to become operational, high prices and lack of communication and clarity from the MMCC, Jones said, but acknowledges that the program is working well so far. “[The MMCC is] trying to do a good job with preserving the medical nature of their program. … Personally, I think the program is working well, and I think that the staff and leadership at the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission have done an excellent job.”
“Though slow out of the gate, we are making great progress in Maryland with all growers and processors fully licensed,” added Bronfein. “Of the 102 [allowed] dispensaries, 30 percent have come online since December 2017. We expect the remaining pre-approved licensees to launch this year. Our patient population is 24,000 and ever increasing with over 200 new patients signing up each day.”
And although adult-use legalization may be on the horizon for the state, Curio Wellness will continue putting its focus on the growing medical market.
“Our concentration is on creating the best national brand of medicinal cannabis products and therein lies our focus,” Bronfein said.
And while Maryland’s medical cannabis program is also focused on high-quality medicinal products, Bronfein hopes the state continues to optimize the system to maximize businesses’ productivity and pricing.
“The inability to use any type of crop protection agent, like products used in organic farming, has a direct impact on growers’ ability to optimize yield, which negatively impacts price to the consumer,” she said. “Additionally, while testing assures a high level of product quality, which we endorse, we are still working out what is the appropriate batch size in order to not make the cost embedded prohibitively expensive.”
The state has also been criticized for racial disparities in its licensing process, and a bill (HB 2) has been introduced in the House in an effort to expand the program to include more minority ownership, while also increasing funding to the MMCC. An amended version of the legislation has passed a House panel. Jones, however, is wary of that bill.
“Within HB 2 is a very unrecognized poison pill,” Jones said. “It’s a way to allow a few more limited numbers of people to benefit from an industry that a lot of people should be benefiting from."
If passed, the legislation would expand the number of cultivation licenses from 15 to 20 and there would be a cap on the number of licenses issued for 10 years.
“The current license holders would by law enjoy a 10-year exclusive reign over this emerging industry,” Jones said. “At that point, it would be almost impossible for new businesses to find their way into a market that has been up and operating for a decade.”
Photos courtesy of Curio Wellness