Maryland weighs legalizing marijuana
In 2003, same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. Five years later, California and Connecticut legalized same-sex marriages, followed by Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia the next year.
Now, the legalization of marijuana is following a similar path, in terms of public support and the passing of state legislation. Washington and Colorado have already legalized marijuana, allowing anyone 21 or older to purchase it, exactly like alcohol. Maryland is now on the same path, along with several other states in the U.S. that are watching to see how the plans in Colorado and Washington play out.
The Marijuana Control Act of 2014, sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson of Baltimore, would implement a policy in Maryland almost exactly like the one in Colorado. According to the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland, the bill would “make the personal use, possession, and limited home-growing of marijuana legal for adults 21 years of age and older; establish a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol; and allow for the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp.”
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. told the Washington Post that he doesn’t think the bill will pass this year, but that “…it’s eventually going to happen.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley has publicly denounced the legalization of marijuana, telling WEAA 88.9 FM in Annapolis, “I’ve seen what drug addiction has done to the people of our state and the people of our city.”
If the bill is passed, it would be up to the comptroller’s office to implement a program. However, all bills in Maryland must be signed by O’Malley to become law. An O’Malley veto could be overturned by a two-thirds vote in the Maryland State House and Senate.
A spokeswoman for Comptroller Peter Franchot said Franchot doesn’t have an official stance on the issue at this point.
Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department John McTague agrees with Miller, and said that the overall public opinion on legalized marijuana is taking a similar path to the same-sex marriage issue.
“It’s almost the perfect comparison,” McTague said. “I think it’s going to be harder to reform drug laws than marriage laws because of the infrastructure that is in place to fight this war on drugs. It’s going to be a state at a time. It’s not going to be like dominoes falling, it will be at a lag. But if you were to plot those public opinion trend lines, it’s the same public opinion on the [marriage] issue. It starts out as a small minority favorite, to almost half of the population.”
In Maryland, 53 percent of state residents support making marijuana legal for adults, according to a poll released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in October.
But just because public opinion is turning, doesn’t mean legislation will pass.
“The biggest question I have is, can the nationally institutionalized war on drugs structure, the war on drugs machine, with all this personnel that have been trained to prosecute a certain way, how will they respond to these states? How is the federal government going to be able to rein itself in, and to what extent will there be tension between what Colorado wants to do, and what the U.S. wants to do?” McTague said.
Almost every president has backed the “War on Drugs,” especially George W. Bush and Bill Clinton after it was started by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, McTague said. President Barack Obama has said that he doesn’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, but he is leaving the issue of legalizing the drug to Congress.
Some believe that if it does become legal nationwide, the money used to enforce marijuana regulation can be used in other ways.
Maryland spends almost $100 million per year to enforce its current marijuana laws, according to Toni Holness, Public Policy Associate for the ACLU of Maryland. The ACLU is assisting Anderson in gaining public support for the bill.
Anderson could not be reached for comment on any feedback he has received from his colleagues in the Maryland legislature, but Holness said public support has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
Besides the economical side of the issue, McTague and Holness both said legal marijuana is gaining supporters because of the racial aspect of the issue.
“The people who get arrested for marijuana possession are overwhelmingly African American, while the people w ho use marijuana are overwhelmingly white. So there’s a social justice aspect to this issue,” McTague said.
The number of black to white marijuana users in Maryland are about even, according to a report released by the ACLU of Maryland, but between 2001 and 2010, the number of blacks arrested for marijuana possession increased by 5,614 but the number of whites arrested increased by just 371.
Holness said the racial justice aspect of the issue was the main reason why the ACLU reached out to Anderson and other supporters of the bill.
Even if this particular bill doesn’t pass in Maryland, McTague said other western states may pass similar legislation. He also expects that Maryland will legalize the drug at some point in the future.
“Out [West], there is more of a libertarian, ‘live-and-let-live’ political culture, as opposed to the South where there is a very moralistic culture, and in the Northeast, where there is a paternalistic political culture,” he said. “I think it could pass in Maryland, though, Maryland is a very progressive state.”