A Maryland political group is campaiging for voters to approve the marijuana legalization initiative on the state’s November ballot. It’s also spotlighting issues of inequity and racism in the state—and working to ensure that legalization directly addresses these wrongs, and provides opportunity to Black communities and others harmed by prohibition.
“We must all do our part to ensure that legalization passes this November,” Kevin Ford, Jr said in an October 14 press release. Ford is leading the Uplift Action Fund, a 501(c)4 political action committee (PAC). “Subjective policing has traumatized Black communities across the country for generations as a result of cannabis criminalization. Right now, all eyes are on Maryland.”
“If we turn out a higher vote in those areas, it signals to the general assembly which way legalization should go, which should be in a fair and equitable manner.”
The PAC is focusing first on turning out voters for the legalization ballot, especially in the city and county of Baltimore, Prince George’s County and Charles County.
“These are traditionally higher-populated Black jurisdictions,” Ford told Filter. “The purpose of that is we believe if we turn out a higher vote in those areas, it signals to the general assembly which way legalization should go, which should be in a fair and equitable manner.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Maryland residents are over twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to white residents, although use rates are similar for both groups. And it’s even worse in some counties—like Baltimore County, whose Black residents are four times likelier to be arrested.
In April, Maryland lawmakers approved a measure to let voters decide if they want to legalize cannabis for adult use. They also passed a separate framework setting some basic rules in the event of legalization, House Bill 837. Governor Larry Hogan (R) let the framework take effect without his signature; the ballot measure didn’t need his approval.
In August, state election officials finalized the text to appear on the ballot for voters. Question 4 simply asks if voters “favor the legalization of the use of cannabis by an individual who is at least 21 years of age on or after July 1, 2023.” An attached summary on the ballot explains that legalization would be subject to a framework agreed by the legislature for regulating the “use, distribution, possession, regulation, and taxation of cannabis.”
If the question is approved, Maryland would legalize possession of up to 1.5 ounces. Possession above that, up to 2.5 ounces, would be treated as a civil offense, addressed by a fine instead of arrest. The bill would also provide for re-sentencing for people currently in prison for cannabis possession, and expungement for those who have completed their sentence and probation. People convicted of “possession with the intent to distribute cannabis” could apply for expungement three years after completing their sentence.
The framework that lawmakers approved mostly concerns how criminal laws would be amended. But its other provisions include setting up a special advisory council to study the health effects of legalization on young people, and a community reinvestment fund to put money into communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition. This would all take effect if voters approve Question 4. But the framework does not set rules for taxes or business licenses, which lawmakers would have to decide at a later date.
According to a September poll of likely voters from Goucher College, a majority of voters—59 percent—supported legalizing cannabis in Maryland. That included a majority in every age group, and majorities of Democrats (70 percent) and independents (53 percent). However, a majority of Republicans (53 percent) still opposed legalization.
If and when legalization passes, the PAC will focus next on educating residents about the new laws, creating a development program for people of color and women who want to own cannabis businesses, providing reentry services for people leaving prison or jail, and setting a “national standard” in diversity, equity and inclusion in the cannabis market.
Ford explained that his organization, Uplift Maryland, previously received a grant from the state government to run a business development program, teaching applicants how to obtain a grower, processor or retail license in the state’s medical marijuana market. He hopes that after full legalization, the state will continue funding equivalent programs that directly assist impacted people.
And because starting and running a cannabis business can be prohibitively expensive—especially for people from disadvantaged communities—he also wants to see the state step in to help startups with financing.
“One thing we plan to advocate and lobby for in the legislative session next year [is business funding],” he said. “To not only have equal opportunities with licensing but also equitable resources, like low-interest or zero-interest loans that folks can get from the state government.”
“We want to make sure folks are released and have their convictions pardoned by the next governor. That those folks have the opportunity to get jobs in the industry.”
Ford also explained what he hopes to see for people with current or former marijuana convictions. Tens of thousands of people could fall into this category, in a state that arrested over 23,000 people for possession between 2000-2010.
“[We need] workforce development training,” he said. “We want to make sure folks are released and have their convictions or charges pardoned by the next governor. That those folks have the opportunity to get these jobs in the industry where they maybe don’t have ‘resume worthy’ experience but do have some experience in.”
Legalization in Maryland seems imminent. But social justice advocates would view it as just a starting point.