When I first ran for office, a reporter asked me whether I had smoked marijuana. I responded that the last poll I saw said 50 percent of Maryland residents admitted trying cannabis. I told the reporter that no matter how I answered, I was therefore a normal Marylander.
Indeed, it’s America’s worst-kept secret that marijuana has been with us since the birth of the nation. Three out of our past four Presidents are frank about their “youthful adventures,” and the odd man out is not known for truthfulness. Surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that marijuana is culturally normalized by diverse voices ranging from Willie Nelson to Snoop Dogg. But even while cannabis is used by diverse demographics, we still see some users criminalized, while for others we look the other way.
I could’ve highlighted for my inquisitive reporter that with half the state having smoked pot, a huge percentage of residents got away with a jailable crime. But not all of them. And therein lies the biggest reason for Maryland to legalize cannabis: America’s second worst-kept secret is that its laws, especially drug laws, are not enforced equally.
In the decade prior to the supposed decriminalization of marijuana in 2014, the ACLU studied Maryland arrests and found “even though blacks and whites use marijuana at comparable rates, police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than Whites in every county in Maryland.” In Baltimore, residents were 5.6 times more likely to be arrested if they were black than if they were white. In Montgomery County, the disparity was 3.2 times, and the pattern was replicated throughout Maryland.
Thankfully these concerns pushed Maryland to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot (10 grams or less). Problem solved, right? Wrong.
After decriminalization took effect, advocates reported police still arrested residents under a different law criminalizing paraphernalia. Rolling papers or plastic bags left residents subject to arrest. We had to pass a law to eliminate this loophole and later override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of this reform.
Even still, police are still giving residents criminal records over trivial amounts of pot. Some cops are breaking out scales, hoping to find more than 10 grams, and in at least one county, they try to include the weight of the bag.
Even worse, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that police can still search and arrest residents if they claim they smell marijuana. It is then the supposedly odorous person’s word against the police, and a constituent was recently arrested by Montgomery County police for being uncooperative during such a search. As for the marijuana, he only received a fine for having less than 10 grams of cannabis.
In yet another scenario, some police arrest people for carrying less than 10 grams of marijuana. How can this be? If residents pre-roll joints or have their stash in more than one bag, some cops charge them with possession with intent to distribute.
Meanwhile, some colleagues in Annapolis have repeatedly tried criminalizing smoking pot outside. A ticket won’t suffice, they say. I’ve pointed out that signs in Annapolis elevators say: “Smoking or carrying lighted tobacco products in this elevator is illegal and subject to a penalty not to exceed $25.” Nobody smokes in elevators, and it doesn’t take jail to achieve that.
Maybe people can smoke in cars instead? Nope. The same lawmakers pushing to jail smokers also think should we jail people smoking in cars. Not moving cars. Not cars with engines on. They insist on including parked cars, with the engine off, and nobody in the driver’s seat.
After decriminalization passed, we also had a judge try to jail a resident out on probation for 20 years over a joint. It costs $37,200 a year to incarcerate someone in Maryland, so over 20 years, the proposed expenditure was $744,000.
So for me, the biggest reason to legalize marijuana in Maryland is to stop out-of-control law enforcement shenanigans. Police have proven decriminalization won’t end the “reefer madness.” This kind of overzealous enforcement of trivial offenses makes some hate police, and that is not desirable. Meanwhile, some of the same police departments are persistently excoriated by the media for failing to investigate rape cases — sometimes not even conducting a single interview. Clearly they have better things to do than arrest people for a substance that is safer than alcohol, tobacco, prescription opioids and fast food.
Yes, there are other reasons to support legalization, like raising money while cutting off cartels. But for me it’s about unequal enforcement, an out-of-control criminal justice system and personal liberty. Just as we saw with marriage equality, voters are ahead of politicians on this issue. Let’s get it done.