Puff, puff, pass.
If proponents of legalizing marijuana in Maryland have their way, the General Assembly will make the drug easier to buy without fear of going to jail.
Surprisingly, even one of the most outspoken opponents of legalization concedes that legalization in the state is inevitable — the only question is when.
Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, who plans to sponsor a bill in the upcoming session that would legalize the drug, believes the time is now.
“I think this is a conversation that Maryland is prepared to have,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery.The Senate bill will be identical to a bill Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, said he plans to file in the House of Delegates.
The proposed law would make it legal for individuals 21 years old and older to posses and smoke marijuana. Individuals will also be allowed to grow their own. Anderson said the legalization proposal envisions the drug being sold at dispensaries similar to liquor stores.
Production and sale will be taxed and regulated by the state in the same way alcohol is.
Anderson said the change could bring in as much as $100 million annually to a cash-strapped state staring at a significant structural budget deficit in the current budget year and again in fiscal 2015.
“The state is looking for more revenue and this would be a way to increase revenue,” Anderson said.
Proponents focus on Maryland
Supporters of legalizing marijuana in Maryland agree with Raskin that the time is right for changing the law.
Rachelle Yeung, a state analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said polls conducted by both her organization and independent polls show support for the legalization and taxation of the drug in Maryland.
Maryland is one of 14 states that the organization is focusing on.
In September, the organization released a poll that showed 53 percent of those surveyed in the state supported the legalization and taxation of marijuana.
The results were similar to those in a poll conducted by the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, in which 51 percent of those surveyed supported making the drug legal in the state versus 40 percent who opposed such a move.
Legalization has also become an issue in the 2014 campaign for governor.
Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery and a candidate for governor, has made legalization and taxation part of her campaign. The candidate said she would put the resulting tax proceeds toward her $279 million proposal to expand preschool programs in Maryland.
But the taxes raised by her plan fall short by $120 million to $150 million based on the delegate’s own estimates.
It’s not all about the Benjamins
Despite all of the talk of how much money the change could bring the state, supporters say it’s more about public policy.
“There is an incentive financially to the state without a doubt,” said Yeung, the policy analyst. “We hope legislators will understand all of the policy issues as well. We’re not just dangling dollars in front of them.”
The drug is not any more dangerous than alcohol, according to Raskin and Anderson. Both compared the criminalization of marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Most people understand that the war on drugs, as it applies to marijuana, has been a dismal failure,” said Raskin. “You can’t repeal the law of supply and demand.”
In the end, Raskin said that laws criminalizing the use of marijuana only serve to enrich drug dealers and lead to corruption.
“I think we get a little taste of that in the takeover of the Baltimore City Detention Center by drug dealers who have so much money.”
Anderson, the Baltimore city delegate, said the current law has also led to uneven enforcement in the black community.
“We’re arresting African-American males at an extremely high rate in this state,” Anderson said. “A significant number are arrested for the possession and use of marijuana. They get a criminal record. They can’t find jobs or get into school. In some cases they can’t find housing. The result at that point is that the only chance some of them have is to go into the [drug] trade.”
A study of FBI arrest data by the ACLU of Maryland found that blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana use and possession, even though the rates of use are essentially the same. That same review found that the state spent $106 million on enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.
“This has really resulted in the mass criminalization of people of color,” said Sara Love, director of public policy for the ACLU of Maryland. “It’s time to be done with a failed policy and move to a policy of taxation and [regulation].”
Love and Raskin added that regulating the sale of the drug is the best way to restrict the sale to juveniles.
“Drug dealers won’t card but we will,” Raskin said.
‘Boomers want to smoke pot’
Mike Gimbel, a former director of Baltimore County’s Bureau of Substance Abuse, believes all of the talk about taxes and the failure of the war on drugs is just a smokescreen for the real reason behind the push for legalization.
“Baby boomers want to smoke pot,” said Gimbel. “Most of these people did it when they were younger and they enjoyed it. They stopped so they could be responsible and raise children. Now they’re older and want to smoke it again but most are law-abiding citizens and they don’t want to break the law.
“You have to remember where this is coming from,” he said. “Baby boomers have all the power. We’re the largest population and we will be until we die. We’re finally fulfilling our dream of sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
Gimbel, a recovering addict who frequently speaks to youth groups and high schools about the dangers of drug abuse, said that the argument that legalizing the drug will keep it out of the hands of young people “is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
“We all know that teens can get alcohol almost any time they want,” he said.
And the comparison to alcohol use is a false one, according to Gimbel.
“You can go out and drink one martini and not get drunk,” Gimbel said. “But when you smoke pot, the whole idea is to get as high as you can. If you don’t get high you get mad and if you do, then you think you got some really good stuff.”
“It’s exactly the same,” Anderson said. “People go get a martini because they want to relax and alter the state they’re in. If an American wants to get high, why can’t they get high? Let’s say the purpose is just to get high. Then so what?”
An intermediate step
Not all efforts are focused on legalizing the drug.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, said he plans on introducing a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The bill would make possession of 10 grams or less punishable by a $100 fine.
The bill the senator plans to introduce this year will also give juvenile masters the ability to sentence minors to drug treatment.
“I don’t believe having a joint makes someone a criminal,” said Zirkin.
Love, of the ACLU, said the organization supports Zirkin’s bill but in the end it doesn’t go far enough.
“Police are still going to stop you because they don’t know how much marijuana you have on you,” Love said. “You don’t get rid of the racial profiling aspect.”
Zirkin’s bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate in 2013 only to get stopped in the House Judiciary Committee.
Zirkin said he supports the legalization effort.
“It’s a superior bill and if it has legs, I’ll vote for it,” he said, adding that he believes the legislature may be more apt to approve his bill but that it could take five years to get it through the legislature.
‘We have a strategy’
The fate of Zirkin’s bill and that of any legalization effort will rest on how it fares in the House Judiciary Committee and with its powerful chairman, Del. Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s.
In September, Zirkin met with Vallario regarding his bill. After the meeting, he told Capital News Service that he wasn’t optimistic about the measure’s chances in the coming session.
But in an interview last week, Zirkin said that while nothing has changed, he is “an eternal optimist at the start of each session.”
Love and Anderson also acknowledge that Vallario, who did not respond to a request for an interview, represents a significant hurdle.
“We have a strategy,” said Anderson, who declined to elaborate on specifics.
“This is more than just a criminal bill,” Anderson said. “It’s a tax bill.”
Anderson’s comments hint at an effort to have the bill assigned to both the House Judiciary Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. Vallario has typically made sure that bills heard jointly receive votes.
If that happens, Anderson is confident that the bill would get a vote by the full House of Delegates.
There is one thing that supporter and opponents agree on: Legalization of marijuana is coming to Maryland.
“It’s inevitable,” said Gimbel, the substance abuse expert. “It’s going to happen and we’ll have to live with the consequences.”