Activism and Positive Impacts on the Cannabis Community
“I didn’t set out to work for the legalization of Cannabis. I don’t even get paid for the work I do on behalf of Cannabis reform. I do it because I wanted to educate myself about Maryland’s politics and how to participate in the political process. As a citizen with an expansive view on freedom and helping others, I wanted to find a way to impact public policy.” Luke Jones was politely answering questions over the whoops and laughter of his sons as it neared their bedtime. As the Director of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Jones wears many hats each day – dutiful employee, concerned Maryland citizen, Cannabis advocate, devoted father. But as the fiftieth year of Prohibition passed, the job of ending the criminal punishment of Cannabis users and creating a marketplace of safe and healthy products can wait no longer for Jones.
“If legalization of Marijuana in Maryland is so popular, and we all agree by a wide margin that reform should happen now, why hasn’t it happened already?” Jones began to ask himself that same question last summer in 2020. What more could he do? How could he personally speed along the political process and make conditions ripe for consensus? As Maryland is a part-time legislature, they meet each year for only 90 days. All the State’s business must be completed during that time. In 2021, the Maryland’s legislative session lasted from January 13 – April 12, 2021. Jones reasoned that if a legalization bill was going to pass this year, the same bill had to be cross-filed in the Maryland House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate early on. And it needed co-sponsors who would vigorously defend the legislation against frivolous attempts to derail it through delay and distraction.
Over the 2020 summer, Jones worked with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) to identify legalization bill sponsors. Jones arranged a meeting between Senator Feldman (D-15) and Jazz Lewis (D-24) in the first week of November 2020 before the session. “We brought them together over the summer to meet each other, iron out differences, and be prepared to cross-file the bills in both houses of the legislature.”
With Lewis, Jones knew he had a talented politician who could listen to opposing interests, discuss them rationally, then defend the merits of his position. In Feldman, Jones thought he had a comrade-in-arms. Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-46) assigned the legalization bill to Feldman who was happy to be the lead sponsor. But when session started, it was clear that something had changed. “During the Fall 2020, Senator Feldman assured us he was ready to make legalization a 2021 priority. By the time the 2021 session began, however, it became clear that there were a lot of caveats and expectation lowering by Senator Feldman.”
“If you just design the bill around the paid lobbyists, then the job will never get done. The citizens of Maryland are the ones to dictate the timeline for policy reform, not the monied special interests opposing legalization.” Jones believes that the failure to pass Cannabis legalization and reform this year was caused by the distorting influence of money in politics. Maryland should have been ripe for legalization legislation this past session, even before Virginia and New York passed their legalization laws. As evidence, he points to the following undisputed facts:
Point 1 – Maryland’s Medical Cannabis Program brought in nearly $ 50 million in dispensary sales in March 2021 (which becomes $ 600 million annually); Point 2 — According to Maryland’s 2019 Uniform Crime Report, the State had more than 15,000 Marijuana possession arrests which has barely moved since the enactment of medical cannabis legislation in 2014; Point 3—Two-thirds of Maryland citizens support legalization; and Point 4 – Cannabis reform was central to the two widely accepted top priorities for Maryland in the 2021 legislative session (police reform and increasing state tax revenue).
Against that backdrop, medical cannabis patient numbers rose from zero in the year 2016 (the first year of qualified patients) to over 123,000 in the year 2020. Certifying providers rose from zero in the year 2016 to more than 2,000 today. But rather than expanding this popular program to include more people and more participants, Maryland ignored the trends, ignored the voters, ignored the national tide of legalization, and kept the current medical Cannabis system in place. By not acting to legalize Cannabis this year, the Maryland legislature voted to protect the current license holders from competition, reduce supply of products for patients, increase demand, and raise the average price for patients.
Despite the setback, Jones is optimistic that legalization will come to Maryland. “Politicians are rightly saying it’s a complicated issue. But no one is trying to solve the problem. Legislators must go into a year with a willingness to compromise if they want to pass legislation. Forming a coalition and possibly making compromises — these are essential aspects of any successful legislative campaign. But money distorts the process of democracy. Citizens shouldn’t have to fight paid lobbyists to secure their personal freedom. And no regulator should take money from the businesses they seek to regulate. These have been the biggest obstacles to progress here in Maryland.”