Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather R. Mizeur is calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana, promising to use the tax revenue it would generate to pay for an expansion of pre-kindergarten education.
Mizeur, a state delegate from Montgomery County, plans to spell out a detailed proposal Tuesday on how Maryland could control the cultivation and distribution of the drug.
"Marijuana is safer than alcohol and tobacco," she said in an interview. "It has been a failed policy for us as a nation to criminalize the use of this substance."
Mizeur's stand on marijuana comes at a time when public attitudes toward marijuana are becoming increasingly permissive. Voters in two states, Colorado and Washington, have voted to legalize the drug, and Maryland has adopted a law allowing its use for medical purposes under tightly controlled circumstances.
The marijuana proposal is part of a larger theme of Mizeur's campaign in which she regularly denounces "mass incarceration" and what she calls the "failed war on drugs."
Mizeur is seeking the Democratic nomination in a primary race that also includes Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Her plan represents a clear break from Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has taken a cautious approach toward any loosening of marijuana laws.
Under Mizeur's plan, only people 21 and older would be able to use marijuana legally. Possession would be limited to an ounce, and smoking marijuana in public would be prohibited. Driving while under the influence of marijuana would still be illegal. The marijuana plants would be grown in secure facilities in Maryland.
Mizeur estimated that under a legal distribution system, licensed Maryland retailers would sell between 1.75 million and 2.25 million ounces of marijuana a year. She proposed an excise tax of $50 an ounce at the wholesale level and an 8 percent tax on retail sales. She estimated that the legal marijuana trade would produce $122.5 million to $157.5 million annually, which she would funnel into a special fund for early childhood education.
"It's enough to fully fund it for the first several phases," she said.
She said she is sensitive to the harmful effects marijuana can have on young people but argued that a regulated system would be more effective at keeping the drugs away from minors than the illegal trade,
"Young people already have access to the underground product, and you don't find drug dealers asking for ID cards," she said. Mizeur said she has used marijuana in the past but does not do so now,
While Mizeur's proposal might have been a political liability just a few years ago, it now appears closer to mainstream opinion. A recent Goucher College poll showed that 51 percent of Marylanders support marijuana legalization, while 40 percent oppose it.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher, said Mizeur isn't so much leading public opinion as respecting it. She said it's an issue that could draw voters' attention to Mizeur, whose campaign has been polling in single digits.
"It's one of those things people will be interested in thinking about and talking about," Kromer said. "It will be interesting to see if the other candidates follow suit."
So far, none has been willing to go as far as Mizeur.
Bob Wheelock, a spokesman for Gansler, said the attorney general will enforce the laws that are on the books. "He's looking at options and trying to see what works," Wheelock said.
Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said his candidate "welcomes a continued discussion and analysis" of decriminalizing negligible amounts of marijuana.
Neither Harford County Executive David R. Craig nor Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, two of the Republican candidates for governor, supports legalization. A third, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar, said he is undecided.