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One step at a time on marijuana [Editorial]

The politics surrounding marijuana in Maryland have come a long way during the last few years. A law allowing token penalties for those who claimed medical reasons for using the drug was controversial less than a decade ago. Now the state is launching a medical marijuana program, and the state Senate easily passed a bill this year decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot for any reason. Now, with polls showing a majority of the state favors outright legalization, a gubernatorial candidate is making a regulation-and-taxation scheme part of her platform. Del. Heather Mizeur says marijuana should be legalized and regulated the same way alcohol and tobacco are, and she would use the tax revenues from its sale to pay for an expansion of pre-kindergarten education.

We certainly support the expansion of pre-kindergarten education, and we have real questions about the value and fairness of the state's current enforcement of marijuana laws. But full legalization isn't something the state should jump into without careful consideration or before seeing the effects of legalization in other states.

Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws of some kind, with Maryland's program, enacted during this year's General Assembly session, among the most tightly controlled. But two states, Colorado and Washington, recently legalized marijuana for recreational purposes as well as for medical use, allowing people to buy and possess small amounts of the drug without fear of criminal prosecution. Ms. Mizeur's proposal would be modeled along similar lines, but the regulatory framework in those states is still being set up, so their effects are unknown. Before Maryland follows their lead, we would like to see some data, such as how much (if at all) legalization affects crime rates and overall levels of drug use, particularly among minors.

Ms. Mizeur has made marijuana legalization part of a larger agenda aimed at a reforming the criminal justice system and ending what she calls the nation's "failed war on drugs." It is on that front that the argument for reform to marijuana laws is strongest. No one denies the enormous cost to taxpayers of enforcing marijuana laws that send thousands of people to the state's prisons every year. Not only does the current policy disrupt the lives of people convicted of minor drug crimes and of their families, it also stamps those who have served their sentences with criminal records that make it harder for them to get a job after their release. Ms. Mizeur is right that the current system is counterproductive because it often leaves former inmates with few alternatives to a continued life of crime after they get out and because locking up, prosecuting and incarcerating people for smoking pot is a huge waste of resources that doesn't make society any safer.

According to an exhaustive study on the topic by the ACLU, Maryland has the fourth-highest arrest rate for marijuana possession among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, thanks to an exponential rise in enforcement during the last decade. What's worse, even though survey data shows that whites and blacks use marijuana at comparable rates, blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Maryland.

Reform is clearly warranted, but there is no need for Maryland to join Colorado and Washington as guinea pigs in the social experiment of full legalization. Instead, Maryland should continue to explore decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug as well as alternatives to incarceration for low-level nonviolent offenders. (A recent law calling for citations rather than criminal charges in some cases is helpful but likely insufficient.) It may well be that legalization will eventually turn out to be the best alternative to a policy that wastes millions of dollars a year sending people to prison who don't need to be there. But Maryland needs to adopt a carefully considered, incremental approach that doesn't risk rushing to embrace a sweeping but untested new policy that could create as many problems as it solves.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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