State officials may be struggling to develop a program that would allow sufferers of certain painful, chronic conditions to use marijuana under the auspices of clinical research, but it's clear that Maryland voters are way out ahead of them in their views on the drug. Just 37 percent of those surveyed in the latest Sun poll want to keep the status quo for marijuana, while 28 percent think posession should be decriminalized — that is, treated like a traffic ticket — and 30 percent think it should be legalized and taxed. That is to say, 58 percent of voters do not support putting people in jail for using the drug recreationally. It no longer appears to be a question of whether the state will relax its marijuana laws but how soon and how much. We urge some caution.
The argument for decriminalization is that the criminal justice system's war on drugs has swept up untold thousands of people and put them in jail or prison for posession of small amounts of marijuana, at great cost to themselves and to society and without making an appreciable difference in the rate at which the drug is used. What's worse, the impact of this policy is disproportionately felt by minorities. The American Civil Liberties Union issued an eye-opening report last year on the cost of the nation's war on marijuana, and it found that blacks in Maryland are nearly three times as likely as whites to be arrested for posession, despite roughly equal rates of use. The group estimated that Maryland spends more than $100 million a year to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for marijuana posession. Maryland has the third highest arrest rate for marijuana posession among the states.
State and local officials have started to take notice. A decriminalization bill passed the state Senate last year, and the effort has new momentum this year as all three Democratic gubernatorial candidates have endorsed the idea. Meanwhile, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein has rapidly expanded a program that allows those arrested for possession a chance to avoid a conviction by agreeing to community service; 4,500 people took advantage of the program in 2013, triple the number from a year earlier. (Astonishingly, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declined to state a position on what the state's marijuana policy should be during a recent Sun editorial board interview, despite the fact that 7,047 of her constituents were arrested for posession in 2010, 6,461 of whom were black.)
Advocates of legalization make some good arguments that decriminalization is ultimately not enough. The strongest one is that the marijuana trade would still be controled by drug dealers and gangs, and decriminalization would do nothing to stem the lawlessness and violence that go along with them. They posit that legalization would have the same effect on drug cartels that the end of Prohibition did on organized crime in the 1930s.
But they gloss over a number of troubling uncertainties posed by legalization. Among them: Would legalization increase the rate of marijuana use among minors as the drug becomes destigmatized and more commonly available, or would government regulation of its sale actually make it harder for teens to get? Would it lead to an increase in impaired driving accidents, and how would police enforce stoned driving laws without the same kind of technology we have to check blood alcohol levels? And how would drug gangs respond to legalization? Would they diminish as a threat, or would they become more dangerous as they fight for a share of a shrinking market?
Fortunately, the people of Colorado and Washington state have volunteered to answer these questions for us by voting to legalize the drug. We should wait and see what happens there before entertaining the idea of legalization in Maryland.
But decriminalization is another matter. Several states enacted some version of that policy as far back as the 1970s, with no obvious ill effects. Given the tremendous costs of marijuana arrests and prosecutions, the grossly unfair impact the enforcement of marijuana laws has on minorities, and the shift in public attitudes, it's an idea whose time may have come.