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George Liebmann’s latest book links prohibition, pot

In his cozy office on West Hamilton Street, George W. Liebmann leans forward in his chair and grins broadly as he talks about former Maryland Gov. Albert Ritchie taking a stand against Prohibition that no other governor was willing to take.

Ritchie was a Democrat and Liebmann is a registered Republican, but that kind of leadership clearly appeals to him, no matter what party it comes from.

Liebmann, a lawyer, historian and author, is a firm believer in decriminalizing marijuana — and hopes his latest book will provide some inspiration for the next Albert Ritchie.

The book, “Prohibition in Maryland: A Collection of Documents,” is Liebmann’s 10th. It’s a chronological compilation of letters, speeches and commissioned reports that show the key role Maryland played in re-legalizing the sale of alcohol nationwide in the 1920s and 1930s.

“The point of this book is to provide an object lesson that really shows what, under the American system, a single state can still do if it’s determined,” Liebmann said. “That requires the sort of leadership that’s been absent here.”

The preface of the book, which is the only part Liebmann himself wrote, places the letters about Prohibition that follow into the context of the current debate over marijuana laws.

It’s an issue on which Liebmann says Gov. Martin O’Malley has essentially abandoned Baltimore.

“It’s really, for the city, the most important issue there is,” Liebmann said. “It’s prevented the black population from reaping all the gains it should have from the civil rights movement.”

Liebmann said he doesn’t “make light of marijuana as a social evil,” but the current approach of prohibiting its use is ineffective and has unintended consequences. For instance, he said it has shackled Baltimore’s economy by giving thousands of citizens criminal records that make them less employable.

“It’s not exactly a gold star on their resumes,” Liebmann said.

Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for O’Malley, said one of the governor’s core goals is reducing drug addiction and he has a plan to do it.

“But that plan does not include decriminalizing marijuana,” she said.

In his preface, Liebmann contrasts a lack of leadership he perceives from O’Malley and President Barack Obama on the drug issue with the strong stands taken by Ritchie and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt on repealing Prohibition.

The book includes four speeches by Ritchie, under whose leadership Maryland became the only state that refused to enforce Prohibition.

During an excerpt from his second inaugural address, in 1924, Ritchie pushes for each state’s right to choose how it will regulate alcohol. He rails against Prohibition’s “Federal invasion of the pocketbooks of the people,” and “enormous and growing overhead of bureaus and commissions.”

The Democratic governor’s thinking sounds much like that of the modern-day tea party — although Liebmann said that movement has largely failed to apply its decentralized-government ideals to marijuana regulation.

“The only people of that persuasion are [Texas congressman] Ron Paul and [former New Mexico governor] Gary Johnson,” Liebmann said. “It hasn’t caught fire with the tax-reducers and the deficit-reducers in the Tea Party yet.”

But Liebmann said there would be obvious revenue advantages to establishing a licensing system for regulating the sale of pot, much like what exists for alcohol.

And he argues that there would be sizable political advantages, if history is any indication. His book includes a 1932 campaign address in which FDR is bitingly critical of the Republican Party for waffling on Prohibition, while emphasizing that the Democratic platform called clearly and strongly for repeal.

“It was the most popular thing he did,” Liebmann said. “It was a big issue, probably bigger than people realize … and the heavens didn’t fall.”

Liebmann argues that the heavens will stay similarly solid if regulation of pot is left to the states, and the criminal underworld would be stripped of one of its main income sources.

He said decriminalization wouldn’t have to mean society condoned pot use. It could be made a civil crime, punishable by a fine that would condemn the act without giving the perpetrator a permanent criminal record. A focus on testing and treatment — especially at the high school and college level — would be more effective in reducing drug use than jail time anyway, he said.

Liebmann lists “spaced-out” students as one of the most damaging consequences of pot use — a consequence he thinks has reached the very highest levels of government.

“When you look at the last several pairs of presidential candidates, virtually all of them seem to have drifted through their undergraduate years in a sort of haze,” he said. “There’s no indication that their college studies made any impression on them at all.”

Liebmann published his book through the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a think tank he operates. He said he sent most of the first 500 copies to government officials throughout Maryland, hoping it would remind them of the state’s legacy as a bulwark of state and individual rights on the issue of intoxicants.

Liebmann said the next Albert Ritchie is more likely to come from a state that borders Mexico, because it is only a matter of time before the anarchy and drug violence in that country spills over. Still, he’s planning another printing of “Prohibition in Maryland,” this time more for public consumption.

“I’ve been thinking one possible market we might have is to put a stack in every bar in the state,” he said. “That would be an interesting way of getting rid of them.”