Bills to relax Maryland’s marijuana laws drew a packed audience of supporters and opponents Tuesday.* The Senate Judicial Proceedings committee heard testimony on a range of pot-related bills.
A bill proposed by Sen. Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County was certainly the farthest-reaching. His Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act of 2014 would make pot possession and use legal for adults over the age of 21, similar to Colorado and Washington State.
“We’ve been conducting this war on marijuana since Nixon declared it in the 1970s,” Raskin said. “We have not reduced demand; we have not reduced supply. We have succeeded only in ruining the work records and resumes of 10s of thousands of our own citizens and sending lots of them to jail and ruining a lot of peoples’ lives.”
The bill would bring cultivation, processing and sale of the plant under state regulation. If passed, the state could rake in as much as $135 million a year in taxes on plants and sales. Raskin said that anything less than legalization leaves the drug trade and it’s huge profits in the hands of drug dealers
“We want to put the drug dealers out of business by regulating and taxing marijuana,” Raskin said.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a retired major in the Maryland State Police who spent decades leading anti-drug task forces, says that marijuana makes up for between 40 and 60 percent of the illegal drug trade. “We have the ability to take that away, almost immediately, from organized crime,” Franklin said.
Maryland has one of the highest rates for marijuana arrests in the country. In absolute numbers, the Free State out-arrests more populous states like Ohio and Pennsylvania for pot possession. But Sara Love from the Maryland chapter of the ACLU said those arrests are far from equal.
“Across the state in every county, blacks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Even though blacks and whites use marijuana at comparable rates.
Del. Curt Anderson told the committee that in Baltimore City, some 6,600 people were arrested for pot possession; 91 percent of them, he said, were African-American. Anderson is backing a House version of the bill.
Attitudes about pot in Maryland are changing, as are attitudes nationwide. A Goucher University poll found a slim majority in Maryland supports marijuana legalization. The poll found that 8 in 10 Marylanders support decriminalizing pot possession and 9 in 10 support medical marijuana when prescribed by a doctor.
But the push for legalization drew many critics, too. Law enforcement was well represented at the hearing – some for, most against. Brass from police and sheriffs’ departments around Maryland came out in force to oppose efforts to relax the state’s marijuana laws, saying that the result would be increased drug use and less safe streets.
“The impact of legalization of supply and demand on our streets has yet to be determined. The idea that less violence will occur is an unproven talking point,” Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis said.
Harford County State’s Attorney Joe Cassilly said advocates are rushing to change the pot laws before the “catastrophic consequences” of legalization in Colorado and Washington are borne out.
“Let’s wait, let’s study, let’s collect the evidence that we think is going to be generated and then we can have a discussion based on scientific evidence and not anecdotal comments from a bunch of pot heads,” Cassilly said.
At the hearing, Sen. James Brochin expressed a hesitation shared by others on the Judicial Proceedings committee: that the cost of legalizing marijuana may be that it tells kids it’s okay to get high.
“I think you’re normalizing the behavior,” Brochin said. “And when you normalize the behavior and you treat it like tobacco or you treat it like alcohol you’re introducing it to a lot of people who would have maybe not even given it a second thought.”
The committee was much more supportive of a bill to decriminalize pot use. Under that bill, adults caught with less than ten grams of pot would get a $100 dollar ticket and no criminal record.
Sen. Kittleman co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Bobby Zirkin. Kittleman calls decriminalization a public safety measure, saying that police are caught up in courts fighting drug possession when they should be out on the streets fighting more serious crime.
“Individuals who possess such small amounts of marijuana don’t really pose a threat to society and they take a whole lot of resources from our police departments,” Kittleman said.
Sen. Zirkin sponsored a similar bill last year, which made it through the Senate but failed in the House. Zirkin said that while he is philosophically inclined to agree with Raskin that legalization is the better policy, the political reality is that such a bill won’t pass.
House Speaker Mike Busch says he doesn’t think either bill will pass this year, and that he’s no fan of recreational marijuana. Busch appointed a task force to study the effects of changing marijuana laws, including the state’s new but bottlenecked medical marijuana law.
“I think while we’re getting as much information as we can this year, I think it’ll be determined in the future whether we go in that direction or not,” Busch said. He did say that he supports making medical marijuana more accessible to those who would benefit from the drug.
Gov. Martin O’Malley has also come out against decriminalization or legalization, saying recreational marijuana is often a gateway for more dangerous drug use.
Even if Maryland doesn’t legalize or decriminalize the drug this year, many proponents of reform pot laws say a debate was started. It’s a debate they’re sure will lead to legal weed.
*This post has been corrected. These hearings took place Tuesday, February 25th.