Maryland Lawmakers Debating Whether to Legalize Recreational Marijuana or Put It on Ballot

Maryland lawmakers are meeting this week to start their 90-day legislative session to discuss topics concerning the $4.5 billion budget surplus, COVID-19, climate change and legalizing recreational marijuana.

The Democratic-controlled Maryland General Assembly will plan how to manage the surplus for the current and upcoming fiscal years, and state Senate President Bill Ferguson said they need to be careful how they approach the budget.

"I think people have heard this $4.6 billion like it's time that we can fund everything possible, but we've got to be very, very thoughtful and moderate about how we approach it, because we don't want to set ourselves up for a fiscal cliff in two to three years from now," Ferguson said.

Legalizing recreational marijuana is one of the topics the lawmakers will consider, one with fiscal implications.

Ferguson previously pledged that Maryland legislation would work to legalize the use of recreational marijuana, the Baltimore Sun reported. Democratic House Speaker Adrienne Jones voiced her support for adding legalized cannabis to the November ballot, according to WBAL-TV. However, Jones previously said she has concerns when it comes to young adults.

"The House will pass legislation early next year to put this question before the voters but we need to start looking at changes needed to state law now," Jones said.

A Goucher College poll conducted last year showed two-thirds of Maryland residents support the legalization of recreational marijuana while 28 percent oppose it.

Jones also noted that the budget surplus will allow changes and upgrades to public areas including parks, bridges, schools and information technology systems.

"We are going to focus on making critical upgrades rather than creating new long-term spending priorities," Jones said. "Essentially, we want to be able to put funds in so we can see more immediate results."

Maryland Surplus Marijuana Legislature
Maryland lawmakers are meeting this week to start their 90-day legislative session to discuss topics concerning the $4.5 billion budget surplus, COVID-19, climate change and legalizing recreational marijuana. Above, Governor Larry Hogan holds a news conference on the state's COVID-19 situation, at the Maryland State Capitol on August 5, 2021, in Annapolis. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Lawmakers also will be finalizing a new map for state legislative districts for the General Assembly's 188 seats. A panel including lawmakers approved a recommended map last week that they are submitting to the legislature.

Other areas which will be discussed during the nine-day session include Republican Governor Larry Hogan's three-year, $500 million investment in increased support for law enforcement proposal. Hogan said he will reintroduce legislation to address violent crime during the upcoming session. The measures will include stronger penalties for offenders who use and illegally possess firearms.

Hogan, who is entering his last session as governor, also said he will be proposing an increase in the state's Rainy Day Fund as well as tax relief. The governor has been trying to win tax relief for retirees for years.

"Our focus for the whole legislative session, as I mentioned, is going to be on crime, on cutting taxes and on trying to get some fair maps in the redistricting process," Hogan said Monday.

As COVID-19 cases surge, the pandemic's expenditures are also expected to be a leading issue.

"I think testing is going to be with us for a while, and so we've got to have the infrastructure in place to restore faith that we can tackle this virus and live life sustainably," Ferguson said.

Bryan Simonaire, the state Senate minority leader, said Republicans would be supporting tax relief, specifically a repeal of a tax on digital downloads that was approved last year and ending an automatic state gas tax increase that has been in effect for years.

"We believe that you should provide tax relief, give some of the money back to the people," said Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Lawmakers will also wrestle with how to do more to address climate change. Last year, a sweeping measure stalled that would have required the state to plan to increase its greenhouse gas reduction goals from 40 percent of 2006 levels by 2030 to 60 percent—though some provisions such as planting 5 million trees by 2031 passed.

Juvenile justice reform also is expected to be a priority. Last summer, a state commission recommended changes that include ending the policy of automatically charging youths as adults for certain crimes.

Legislation to create a statewide insurance program to provide family and medical leave is also being proposed.

"We're in the process of bringing together the appropriate stakeholders to work with both the employers and employees to see what consensus we can get that makes sense," Jones said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.