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Md. lawmakers eye legalization of marijuana

ANNAPOLIS — Five Maryland Democratic lawmakers say they will push for legalization of marijuana for recreational use during the 2017 session.

The daunting effort, if successful, would make Maryland the first state in the nation to legalize the recreational use of the drug through legislation rather than a citizen-driven ballot initiative.

“I think the data is very clear that Marylanders are ready for a grown up conversation on this topic,” said Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, a supporter of legalization who is also sponsoring a bill that would place the issue before voters in 2018.

Moon said polls show public opinion is turning on the issue.

“You can smell the inevitability of this in the air,” Moon said.

The package of two bills backed by Democratic Montgomery County Sens. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. and William C. Smith, and Dels. Curt Anderson and Mary Washington, both Baltimore City Democrats, would legalize the recreational use of the drug and institute a taxation and regulatory structure similar to the one used to govern alcohol sales in the state.

Madaleno, vice chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said regulation and taxation would be based on “the best practices that other states have used.”

“The estimates are that Colorado and Washington are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues without any increase in crime with actually a more sensible approach to cannabis use,” Madaleno said. “It is time for us to do the same in Maryland.”

The bills, which were not available at the time of the news conference Monday, would also allow persons who have been convicted of possession-related crimes made legal under the proposal to have those convictions expunged, as well as to allow individuals to grow and possess six marijuana plants for their own individual use.

“Now is the time that we have an opportunity to look at tax revenues from cannabis sales and how they will generate much-needed funds.” said Washington.

Washington initially said that the timing for such a change was good this year because of a $400 million shortfall in state revenues. Later, she acknowledged that the money generated by taxing the sales of legalized marijuana would not go toward offsetting that shortfall but rather would be earmarked for a number of programs.

Under Washington’s plan, 25 percent would go toward the community schools model in communities where at least 50 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch programs. An additional 25 percent would be earmarked for addiction treatment programs; 15 percent would be earmarked for workforce development through the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; and the final 10 percent would be earmarked to combat driving under the influence.

In 2016, Colorado reported collecting $256 million in revenue from recreational marijuana sales.

This is not the first time the legislature has considered marijuana legalization. No bill in the last three years has made it out of committee.

Washington and other proponents said they have learned a lesson and separated the tax and regulation legislation from the legalization bill so that both policies could receive their own discussions in different committees.

Despite the return of the legislation, passage is not a given.

“The truth is, it will bring problems to Maryland if you legalize it,” said Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He said he is concerned about increases in driving under the influence that have been reported in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

“I’m not a reefer madness person, but at the same time I think there are a whole host of problems that you make by legalizing (marijuana),” Ready said.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said past efforts have not received so much as a committee vote because there was not yet a consensus in the Senate. Zirkin compared the issue to that of the debate to eliminate the death penalty in Maryland, saying it was a slow burn that required repeated discussions and education of lawmakers before such a vote could be taken.

Legalization of marijuana, Zirkin said, “has not been discussed in any meaningful way so far this session, including in the Democratic Caucus.”

“This is an issue where states that have done it have seen positive things, like revenues, but also, anecdotally, and I stress anecdotally, there are negatives as well,” Zirkin said.

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