What will Baltimore do with millions in Cannabis reparation funds?
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The first Marylanders to hand over cash in exchange for legally purchased recreational marijuana Saturday began to fill a pot of state money set aside for communities with disproportionate amounts of cannabis-related arrests.
The state will charge 9% sales tax on recreational marijuana — the same as the tax on alcohol — and set aside just over a third of that money for the new Community Repair and Reinvestment Fund. Annapolis lawmakers expect dispensaries to sell $400 million worth of cannabis products in the first year of legalization, which would amount to $36 million in tax revenue.
Dayvon Love, the director of public policy for the grassroots think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, helped guide the development of the state law. He said his organization wanted to focus on repair for Black communities eviscerated by the war on drugs without that repair being contingent on participation in the cannabis industry. Next year, the state will issue a new round of licenses to sell recreational cannabis to social equity applicants — that is, Marylanders who live in or attended school in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana possession.
“There are all kinds of complicated structural things about selling cannabis. Folks’ participation should go beyond business opportunities and challenge traditional political traditions,” Love said.
The law that created the fund calls for every county in Maryland to create its own commission that will determine how to spend the money, with a few parameters: No funds can go toward law enforcement activities.
Baltimore City became the state’s first jurisdiction to create such legislation. The city council recently passed a bill sponsored by Council President Nick Mosby and Councilman Kristerfer Burnett that spells out the commission’s structure and membership; it has yet to be signed by Mayor Brandon Scott. The group will begin its work in 2024.
“In Baltimore, we’re taking steps to make sure that revenue is invested in the Black and Brown communities who were most disproportionately impacted by the failed War on Drugs,” Scott said in a written statement, adding that he will take final action on the bill before July 17.
There is a slew of research that shows Baltimore’s Black residents and Black neighborhoods were hit hardest by that enforcement, Love said.
Maryland decriminalized the possession of 10 grams or fewer of marijuana in 2014, turning the possession of such amounts into a ticketable citation rather than a criminal charge. Though the law resulted in an overall reduction of cannabis-related arrests, according to an analysis from the Baltimore Fishbowl, such arrests of city residents disproportionately impacted Black residents. Of the nearly 1,500 adults and 66 minors arrested for possession in the three years after decriminalization, 96% were Black.
Police also issued citations disproportionately to Black residents, according to a 2019 analysis from then-City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office, which reported that 94% of the 675 citations from 2015 to 2019 were given to Black people and in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
The city’s law creates a 17-member commission. The comptroller or their designee will be a member, while the city council president and 14 council members will propose at least one candidate each to the mayor, who has final say over membership. Should the chief executive reject any nomination, they must explain in writing why.
“In order to determine the maximum amount of community say, the commission needs to go beyond just a mayor or county executive,” Love said.
The legislation specifies that at least one commission member is a service provider for incarcerated residents and at least one member is a part of a community-based organization that works with low-income residents. Members will serve four-year terms and must submit financial disclosure forms. The commission must publish a biannual report detailing spending.
Council members have yet to receive a deadline for their nominations, but Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents the city’s southwestern 10th District, said she has a candidate in mind. She declined to name them but said they have expertise in economic development and community revitalization.
“Although the criminalization of cannabis is historically tied to structural racism and economic disparities, we now have the chance to envision a new narrative — socially, culturally, and policy,” Porter said in a statement.
Councilman Mark Conway also framed the commission as a way to let communities rewrite their stories.
“It is especially important to involve low-income communities and communities of color in these decisions that will inevitably continue to affect their lives,” he said.
Love and other grassroots organizers originally pushed for the state to divert 60% of cannabis tax proceeds to the community fund. He said activists have not given up on that vision and likely will return to Annapolis for the next General Assembly of lawmakers to lobby for a higher rate of 15% sales tax, with 60% set aside for the fund.
“The legislature was clear, particularly Del. C. T. Wilson, that he did not want the state to view recreational cannabis as a major revenue stream,” he said. “Part of that I sympathize with, but we’ll likely go back to Annapolis and advocate to increase the tax rate to something that is more formidable.”