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After two decades, Maryland moves from recognizing medicinal cannabis to recreational use

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The signing of legislation legalizing cannabis in Maryland marks a mile post in a long strange trip for one Republican former delegate turned marijuana policy advocate.

Don Murphy, a former lawmaker from Baltimore County, once sponsored legislation two decades ago that made it possible for someone arrested for possession of the drug to argue it was for medicinal purposes.

“It was Maryland’s first acknowledgement that marijuana had medicinal value,” said Murphy, reflecting on the 2003 law signed by then Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) the year after Murphy left the legislature. “Here we are 20 years later going, ‘It doesn’t matter, have a nice day, have fun. And we’re going to stop arresting people,’ and all that. In perspective, it’s a shame as we think of all the people whose lives have been ruined in the meantime. But better late than never.”

At the time, the Republican wasn’t on board with full blown legalization.

“I was not an advocate for this,” said Murphy. “But as I watched states and the federal government say no to medical, it made me question everything about adult use, like, what else are they lying to me about?”

Overtime, however, Murphy’s views have evolved — as have those among Maryland voters and lawmakers.

“This was something that was passed in the 1930s,” said Murphy. “It escalated in the 70s and again in the 80s. Now all of a sudden we realize we have come to the full-blown realization, both policy-wise and politically, this is the wrong thing to do. The government has the backing of people in polling and elsewhere to do the right thing. Every two years in Congress, and every four years here, there’s a new crop of people who aren’t vested in the drug war. They can vote their conscience.”

The former delegate later went to work for a national marijuana policy organization lobbying federal lawmakers. Today he heads his own group focused on cannabis policy.

The bill signed by Gov. Wes Moore on Wednesday opens the door to Maryland’s first legal recreational sales on July 1. The bill was one of more than 180 pieces of legislation Moore signed into law Wednesday. Those bills also included protections to access to abortion in Maryland and expansions of gender-affirming health care for transgender persons.

Moore, speaking before signing the cannabis bill, said the new law will “ensure that the rollout of recreational cannabis in our state drives opportunity in an equitable way. The criminalization of marijuana harmed low income communities and communities of color in a profound way. We want to make sure that the legalization of marijuana lifts those communities now in a profound way.”

Under the law, which went into effect upon the governor’s signature, existing growers, processors and dispensaries in the state’s medical industry can convert to a hybrid license.

Will Tilburg, acting director of the newly created Maryland Cannabis Administration, said his agency is “working quickly to implement the legislation and develop Maryland as a model for equity and safety in cannabis regulation.”

The law also opens up hundreds of additional licenses including a round set aside for minority entrepreneurs.

Murphy, however, said the new law doesn’t go far enough to help prospective minority owners.

“Am I thrilled with the way this bill turned out? Not really,” said Murphy. “If I got my way, there would be no limits on the number of dispensaries or the number of producers or processors. Let the market decide. If you want equity applicants to benefit, they have to get in the game. When you limit the number of people who can get in the game. They’re just always going to be underrepresented.”

The signing comes days after Moore put his financial holdings into a blind trust. The trust, valued at more than $2.5 million, includes more than 170,000 shares in a cannabis company that does business in Maryland.

Moore’s shares of Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries make up 46% of his total holdings. State law requires the trustees overseeing Moore’s holdings to reduce those shares to no more than 20% of his total portfolio.


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