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Supporters of legal marijuana launch drive in Annapolis

Laws and LegislationElectionsExecutive BranchAmerican Civil Liberties UnionMaryland State Police

Advocates of legalizing marijuana launched their effort Thursday to change the law in Maryland, calling the war on drugs a failure and pointing to growing public support for their cause.

A handful of Maryland lawmakers hope to push the state in the direction of Colorado, where recreational use of pot is regulated and taxed like alcohol. Advocates say that would generate about $150 million in tax dollars for Maryland each year.

Supporters compared the changing public attitude toward legalizing marijuana to the more recent embrace of same-sex marriage and the rejection of Prohibition policies more than 80 years ago.

"Continuation of the current policy is continuation of failure," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University and a lead sponsor of the legalization effort. "It's part of a conversation that is taking place across the country and across the world."

The new Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland includes advocates who helped pass the recreational marijuana law in Colorado; candidates for governor and attorney general; the American Civil Liberties Union; and Del. Sheila Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy.

The proposal, which has been drafted but not introduced, includes a series of tax regulations. The idea is to highlight the financial benefits.

Gov. Martin O'Malley met with key decision makers Thursday to discuss his legislative agenda, and participants said the group also talked about the state's marijuana policies — including its medical marijuana program and a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the substance.

But chances for passage of a legalization bill are considered slim this year. Both O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have expressed concern about outright legalization, although the effort has received support from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

A November poll by Goucher College found that 51 percent of Maryland residents favored legalizing marijuana. National polls have showed a similar majority.

Miller, 71, told reporters Thursday that with public polls showing a majority of people supporting legal marijuana, he expected it to be legalized in his lifetime. He said the state needs to start having conversations about how to do that now.

"It's going to happen. I'm not advocating it, it's going to happen," he said. "People need to understand it and find the best possible solution."

Among the people involved in talks is Del. Joseph Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The Prince George's County Democrat is widely considered an obstacle to more liberal marijuana policies. A proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and another to legalize it did not make it out of his committee last year.

In an interview Thursday, Vallario said he did not consider himself an obstacle, but he said Maryland has already reduced criminal penalties for possession to only 90 days. He said the state should focus on making its nascent medical marijuana program work. "I'm for medical marijuana," he said. But legalizing it "sends a bad message to young people."

Advocates say changing the law is a matter of fairness, civil rights and public safety.

A recent study by the ACLU found that African-Americans in Maryland were arrested on marijuana charges at least twice as often as whites, even though marijuana use by the two groups is about the same.

Raskin said that the country is criminalizing a generation of citizens for something recent presidents have admitted doing. Two more Democrats, Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, who is running for governor, and Baltimore County Del. Jon Cardin, who is running for attorney general, also appeared at the news conference backing legalized marijuana.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who last year pushed a legalization bill, said the drug is not as addictive as cigarettes or alcohol. He said the state's criminal enforcement of marijuana doesn't dissuade people from using it, but instead makes it a gateway to a criminal record and the closed doors that come with one.

Neil Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said police resources would be better spent focusing on violent crime instead of locking up marijuana users. And disparate enforcement of drug use, he said, makes it a civil rights issue.

"Marijuana prohibition is today's cornerstone of racial profiling," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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