On February 17, 2023, the House Economic Matters Committee held a hearing on a bill looking to legalize recreational cannabis and establish a working marketplace (HB 556). A2JC supported the bill with an amendment that would direct 10% of the cannabis tax revenue towards funding civil legal aid in Maryland. There will be a hearing on the cross-file of the bill (SB516) in the Senate Finance Committee on March 9, 2023.

During the hearing in the House, MLSC Executive Director, Deb Seltzer, Maryland Legal Aid Executive Director, Vicki Shultz, and Executive Director for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Kirsten G. Downs all testified in favor of the bill with the amendment that would dedicate 10% of cannabis tax revenue to an existing Special Fund administered by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation (MLSC), the largest funder of civil legal aid in Maryland. Civil legal aid organizations provide vital legal services to the residents of communities most impacted by the disproportionate enforcement of criminalizing cannabis laws.

In written testimony submitted in support of the friendly amendment, A2JC Executive Director, Reena Shah joined in the effort urging legislators to consider funding for civil legal aid as a mechanism to right many of the harms that have impacted communities most affected by the war on drugs and the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition.

“Investing part of the cannabis tax revenue for this purpose, will serve as an effective anti-poverty strategy and will help with social equity,” Shah wrote. She added that while cannabis may be legal now, tens of thousands of Marylanders still face legal peril because of the cannabis related policies and enforcement. Those harms manifest themselves in civil legal issues such as: 

  • Higher rates of eviction and/or foreclosure and higher instances of unsafe, unhealthy, and unstable housing;
  • Predatory lending and illegal consumer practices that drain intergenerational wealth;
  • Disproportionate school discipline fueling the school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Complex family law issues, including child custody and increased state involvement;
  • Expungement assistance;
  • Wage theft;
  • Need to access basic services and supports like unemployment insurance, social security benefits, veterans’ benefits and food stamps.

Research shows that the provision of legal services not only helps an individual with their legal case, it leads to more long-term solutions and helps to address systemic social ills. Expungement assistance alone, while important, doesn’t fix all the missed economic, educational, wealth-building, and social opportunities of a criminal record. Nor does it address the legal issues and harms residents of disinvested communities face.

Funding civil legal aid will ensure that communities who are still dealing with the collateral consequences of the cannabis enforcement will receive the legal assistance they need to stabilize many parts of their life, including housing, economic security and personal safety.