Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur declared her support of legalization and regulation of marijuana in Maryland on Tuesday, prompting many to wonder: Is the Free State ready to join the growing ranks of states and cities ending the war on weed?
Mizeur, a delegate from Takoma Park whose campaign trails behind that of other Democratic candidates including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Douglas Gansler, proposed a five-part plan, which she said she would use as governor to provide funding for pre-kindergarten programs statewide. Both Brown and Gansler released statements that distanced themselves from the idea of full legalization, but recent Goucher polling found Marylanders may be more ready than their public officials.
More than eight out of 10 Marylanders polled said they believed consequences for possessing small amounts of marijuana should be fines or rehabilitation rather than jail time, according to the poll released Nov. 8. It also found that 51 percent of Marylanders supported full legalization, while 40 percent opposed the move.
During the 2013 General Assembly, lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the distribution of medial marijuana by qualified academic centers. A separate bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana – converting the penalty to a civil fine up to $100 – passed the State Senate, but died in the House of Delegates.
Across the country, the past two years have seen marijuana issues pick up steam as both Washington and Colorado passed legislation to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana use in the states in 2012. In this year’s elections, three Michigan cities and Maine’s largest city, Portland, all overwhelmingly approved referendums to decriminalize varying amounts of marijuana.
Mizeur’s proposal would create a state regulatory framework and licensing for businesses to sell taxed marijuana legally. Only adults over the age of 21 would be allowed to possess marijuana – up to an ounce or up to five grams of concentrated marijuana – or grow up to six plants at a time.
Smoking would remain prohibited in public, indoor or out, and it would remain illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. Her proposal would also allow landlords and employers to prohibit use of marijuana on their premises, though employers would not be able to terminate an employee that uses marijuana in his or her private life.
Mizeur’s campaign said it estimates the state could sell between 1.75 and 2.25 million ounces of marijuana each year through retailers. An excise tax of $50 per ounce would be collected at point of sale from a cultivator, and an assessment of a 6-percent state sales tax and 2-percent excise tax would be collected at point of retail sale. That would collect an estimated $122.5 million to $157.5 million annually, her campaign reported. Mizeur announced she would use $4 million annually for drug and alcohol education for children and fund a temporary public service campaign to educate state residents on the new law.
In Cecil County, political and law enforcement leaders were not very supportive of Mizeur’s proposal.
Cecil County Sheriff Barry Janney said he is adamantly opposed to any effort to legalize marijuana in the state, adding that if Mizeur elected, he will go to Annapolis to testify against such legislation.
“Making marijuana legal is a no-win situation,” he said Thursday.
Commenting on a bill in General Assembly in March, Janney also said that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would lead to enforcement issues, including having to weigh marijuana during traffic stops to determine a penalty level and exposing deputies to increase risk of traffic accidents.
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore concurred with Janney, though she added that she had not read the specifics of Mizeur’s plan.
“I spoke to four AP and honors classes at North East High School recently, and one of the issues they asked me about was marijuana legalization,” she said Thursday. “I think there are medicinal properties and the medical community seems to have a consensus on that, but I think when you talk about full legalization that doesn’t do anyone any good.”
Moore cited the increased risk of drivers operating cars under the influence of marijuana, increased risk of children trying marijuana and the effect of increased marijuana use on family units as reasons to avoid full legalization.
“The societal impacts of legalization are negative,” she said. “In Cecil County, with our substance abuse issues already, it would make no sense to legalize a drug, which some believe to be a gateway drug.”
Moore also said she disagreed with marijuana proponents’ argument to compare pot to alcohol.
“People don’t only drink alcohol to get drunk, but people do only smoke marijuana to get high,” she asserted.
Elsewhere in Cecil County, however, a North East man is leading the county effort to organize marijuana proponents to aid in next year’s legislative session. James Bonham is working with officials from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to get a state branch, and he hopes to eventually start a Cecil County chapter.
“Something has to change,” he said Thursday. “There’s too many good people being locked up for a victimless crime. There isn’t even definitive science to say that you’re hurting yourself.”
Bonham said he occasionally smokes marijuana to treat his ADHD after pharmaceutical prescriptions made him feel ill. He said he believes the recent polling results reflect a changing attitude with younger people and the Baby Boomer generation.
Judy Pentz, spokeswoman for Maryland NORML, concurred and added that recent conversations she has had with residents across the state are no longer adversarial. She added that a coalition of marijuana policy groups and organizations will be lobbying the General Assembly this spring with new legislation.
“There are big things coming down the pike in next year’s session,” she said. “It is a big moment, but it will take an education campaign to change the public’s indoctrination that it’s heard for so long.”
On Saturday, Bonham and Pentz will be holding an informational meeting at 1 p.m. at Pizza Boy in Rising Sun Town Center for those looking to get involved with the legalization movement. Information to contact local representatives will be disseminated and residents will be encouraged to share ideas, Bonham said.