Adult-use recreational cannabis became legal on July 1, but the debate surrounding it is far from over.

The biggest question for businesses is the lack of guidance in negotiating cannabis reform, while the question for local governments is whether the state should claim the lion’s share of revenue and take responsibilities traditionally held by counties and municipalities in regulating businesses within their jurisdictions.

Local response

In response to the state’s position on cannabis regulation, in July the Howard County Council unanimously passed legislation sponsored by Councilman Opel Jones that will establish a Cannabis Work Group focused on short-term issues, and a Cannabis Advisory Panel focused on longer-term issues.

It will be up to the Advisory Panel to recommend how to spend the portion of cannabis sales tax allotted to Howard County’s general fund. The panel is also expected to work with cannabis businesses to ensure a smooth rollout, work with law enforcement to ensure equitable enforcement, and create education and health initiatives.

“(The panel will be) advocating for Maryland counties to get a more substantial portion of state cannabis sales tax revenue, because counties are responsible for working with the new cannabis businesses,” he said.

Councilwoman Deb Jung voted to support the legislation, but said she has doubts it will result in substantive action.

“The state overtook what would traditionally be the county’s prerogative in many areas,” she said. “They told us how we have to conduct our own zoning with stores that are selling cannabis … and even though we have an ability to license alcohol in restaurants and stores, the state removed that from the county.”

Moreover, Jung said, the county will only receive 45 cents for every $100 spent on cannabis within its jurisdiction.

“If nothing else, I hope (the work group and advisory panel) will spend time in front of the state legislature demanding that the counties get back the power that has been taken away from the local level in this arena,” she said.

Implementation

Will Tilburg, executive director of the Maryland Cannabis Commission, addressed 

Howard County’s Cannabis Work Group and Cannabis Advisory Panel during their inaugural combined meeting to provide some background on implementation of the new legislation.

According to Tilburg, the Cannabis Public Health Fund managed by the state Department of Health has received $5 million to oversee public education campaigns and will receive a portion of tax revenue moving forward.

The Cannabis Business Assistance Fund received an $80 million appropriation and will also receive 5% of tax revenue moving forward.

“The Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund goes directly to local governments for use in helping local communities and communities that were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” Tilburg said, with 35% of the state’s cannabis tax revenue earmarked for that purpose.

There is currently one combined grower/processor located in Howard County, and a total of seven medical dispensaries, all of which converted to medical and adult use businesses. According to Tilburg, the county could expect a maximum of three additional dispensaries after the next rounds of licensing.

Currently 5% of cannabis tax revenue is allocated to county and municipal governments based off of receipts within those jurisdictions.

Workplace questions

Despite the new legality of cannabis, business advocates have pointed out that state legislation contains very little in terms of addressing the impact of legal cannabis use in the workplace.

 “There is some uncertainty as to how to proceed,” said Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, noting that businesses are still within their right to dictate what is allowed on a job site.

“One gray area that is still to be worked out is how to determine whether someone partook, when, and whether it is having an impact,” he said. “With alcohol, a Breathalyzer detects it and the tester knows it was within an immediate time frame. With cannabis, it can stay in your system for weeks, so a positive test does not mean immediate usage.”

So far, workplace guidance seems to be limited to the opinions of the legal counsel for each business and industry group.

According to guidance posted on the Maryland State Education Association website, “the General Assembly will have to adopt workplace protections to ensure that workers cannot be punished for off-hours marijuana use as long as the employee is not coming to work high or performance is compromised. For employers, navigating testing will be tricky since establishing impairment is difficult.”

In similar guidance posted on the website of the Greater Baltimore chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors trade association, the ABC has signaled its intention to advocate for legislation in the 2024 General Assembly session that would include a proposed six-hour ban for smoking and an eight-hour ban for edibles, and the ability for employers to conduct impairment testing and make employment decisions based on that testing.