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Bill would ultimately let Md. voters decide whether to legalize pot

Bryan P. Sears//February 20, 2018

Bill would ultimately let Md. voters decide whether to legalize pot

By Bryan P. Sears

//February 20, 2018

A farmer checks a young marijuana plant. (Thinkstock)

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland voters would have their say on the legalization of recreational marijuana if a group of lawmakers have their way.

A proposal sponsored by Sen. William C. Smith Jr., D-Montgomery, calls for an amendment to Maryland’s constitution that would legalize recreational marijuana for commercial purposes, which would be taxed and regulated similar to alcohol. All personal possession would be legal as well as an allowance for the cultivation of up to six plants for personal use. Up to 5 grams could be give free of charge under the bill.

“This is certainly much safer than alcohol or opioids,” said Smith during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, of which he is also a member.

If passed, the measure would require a majority of voters in November to approve the amendment.

Smith said a referendum might “take some of the politics out of a good policy decision.”

This is not the first time such legislation has been proposed.

Marijuana is legal in nine states and Washington. With the exception of Vermont, which became the first state to legalize the drug through its legislature earlier this year, all other states have legalized it through a ballot initiative started by voters.

In Maryland, voters can repeal a law through a referendum, but there is no ballot initiative as there is in California.

Vermont in January became the first state in the nation to legalize personal possession of marijuana and the ability of individuals to grow their own — similar to the District of Columbia.

Lawrence Grandpre, director of research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, called on lawmakers to pass the measure and to include changes that would pump some of the hundreds of millions in revenue projected by supporters into some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods — the same neighborhoods most affected by the riots in 2015 and by targeted drug enforcement.

“This legislation does not address the effect this has had on communities,” Grandpre said.

The bill likely faces a difficult road to passage again this year. Of the five co-sponsors joining Smith on the bill, none are members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. An identical bill has been filed in the House of Delegates with a hearing scheduled for mid-March.

Opponents, including AAA Mid-Atlantic and Smart Approaches to Marijuana, urged lawmakers to reject the bill, saying legalization would lead to increases in underage usage and driving under the influence.

“Drugged driving is on the rise and is a serious traffic safety concern for Maryland motorists,” said Regina Cooper Averella, manager of public and government affairs for the motorists’ association.

Sen. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, questioned the reasoning for writing marijuana into the state constitution similar to how gambling was passed in 2008, calling it “a cop-out.”

“The problem is any time we have to make changes with gambling we have to do a whole constitutional amendment,” said Hough, who acknowledged that legalization of marijuana in Maryland “may very well happen in the next few years.”

In a Goucher Poll conducted almost a year ago, 58 percent of Maryland residents said they support legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes versus 36 percent who oppose it. The results were similar to Goucher Poll results in 2015 and 2016.

That poll in Maryland tracks with national polls, with supporters tending to be younger or Democratic. Even Republicans voters are expressing support, as other states have found businesses growing up to support legalized marijuana markets.

On the committee, however, a number of Republicans and conservative Democrats expressed concerns about public safety, driving under the influence and increased teen use.

“It seems like what we’re advocating for here is damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” said Robert G. “Bob” Cassilly, R-Harford.


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