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Tide shifting toward legalizing marijuana in Maryland
(Brand X Pictures Photo, Carroll County Times)

ANNAPOLIS - The road to legalizing recreational use of marijuana would be a tough battle even if the governor supported it.

Wednesday, on the first day of the legislative session, Gov. Martin O'Malley voiced a strong opposition to the recreational use of marijuana, on a Baltimore radio program.

"I've seen what drug addiction has done to the people of our state," O'Malley told WEAA 88.9 FM.

Bills will be introduced in both the House of Delegates and the Senate this year for recreational sale of marijuana, and while most people agree that any bill legalizing marijuana in the state will ultimately fail this session, the evidence points to a shift in public perception about the drug, and to a clearer path to legalization in Maryland in the coming years.

A national Gallup poll in October found that a majority of Americans - 58 percent - for the first time said the drug should be legalized. A Goucher poll found that 51 percent of Marylanders support making marijuana use legal.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said just prior to the legislative session that he favors the legalization and taxation of marijuana, with restrictions, while House Speaker Michael Busch has said he supports marijuana use for medical purposes, but not its full legalization.

Del. Heather Mizeur, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in the June primary, is proposing legalizing marijuana and regulating and taxing it - similar to alcohol.

Her plan would mirror initiatives in Colorado and Washington state, where voters approved legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for people 21 and older, and would fund an expansion of pre-kindergarten education in the state. Colorado began regulated sale of marijuana Jan. 1, becoming the first state to do so.

Currently, 22 states have laws enacted regarding medical marijuana.

O'Malley signed a measure in May to establish an independent 12-member medical marijuana commission within the State Department of Health. State-sanctioned research programs were not expected to be operational until 2015.

In Maryland, efforts for looser restrictions on marijuana have failed in the past. Sen. David Brinkley, R-District 4, said he co-sponsored a bill to decriminalize marijuana last year. It failed in the House of Delegates. He was successful in sponsoring a bill for medical marijuana which is now law, albeit with restrictions.

A spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said some progress has already been made in decriminalizing medical marijuana, and he is hoping to see additional reforms soon.

NORML is a leading voice in the movement to decriminalize marijuana, with a mission "to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to assure they have access to high quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable."

"Things are looking pretty positive," said Erik Altieri, the communications director at NORML's national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The organization also has a state chapter in Baltimore, a regional chapter in Frederick, and college chapters at Towson University and University of Maryland, College Park.

"There has been some pretty solid support, particularly in the state senate," Altieri said.

Altieri said the backing from local politicians combined with the momentum of the country leads him to believe that legalization of marijuana in Maryland could happen sooner than later.

Unpopular with Carroll legislators

Legalization of marijuana is unpopular with nearly every Carroll delegate.

Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 9B, is conceptually against legalizing marijuana, but would have to see legislation, she said.

Del. Donald Elliot, R-District 4B, said he does not support legalizing marijuana. Del. Nancy Stocksdale, R-District 5A, had similar sentiments.

Stocksdale said many will be looking to Colorado to see how its residents are affected after several years. She said regardless, she'd be concerned about people driving under the influence of marijuana, and how marijuana could lead to more drug use.

"I think it would lead to big problems, health-wise, safety-wise, I'm just opposed to it," Stocksdale said.

Del. Justin Ready, R-District 5A, said he's stuck between two ideas of conservatism.

He said while sometimes he'd like to take a libertarian viewpoint, morally he believes marijuana is wrong. Libertarians tend to believe marijuana should at least be taxed and regulated, according to the Libertarian Party's website. At the moment, Ready said he is opposed to the legalization of marijuana.

Sen. Joe Getty, R-District 5, said he opposes both decriminalization of marijuana as well as regulation of recreational use.

"I don't think any of the leadership is looking toward the Colorado model of legalization," he said.

He said he believes the prevailing opinion, that marijuana is a gateway to more addictive substances.

While Brinkley thinks any legislation regarding marijuana unlikely to pass, Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-District 9, plans to co-sponsor the legislation in the Senate to legalize and decriminalize marijuana.

"I wasn't born last night," Kittleman said. "I know it'll be a difficult road to hoe for the legalization of marijuana."

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Reasons to legalize

Altieri said the state would save millions annually in law enforcement costs, if the prohibition on marijuana was lifted. Maryland spent approximately $106 million enforcing possession of marijuana laws in 2010 alone, according to a study by the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said legal sales of marijuana would bring in tax revenue and jobs for the people of Maryland. Decriminalizing marijuana would be good for the state financially, he said, and it would also address a moral crisis.

"The laws are applied unjustly," Altieri said.

Altieri said although whites and blacks use marijuana at about the same rate, arrest records show a disproportionate number of marijuana arrests for blacks in every county in Maryland. He said the current policy allows for rampant discrimination and only increases crime.

"It's ruining the lives of countless Marylanders," he said.

People convicted of marijuana possession cannot apply for federal aid for education, housing assistance or other programs, Altieri said.

Currently, the marijuana market is in the control of criminal cartels, he said.

"Let's replace those criminal elements with legitimate business owners," Altieri said.

He said that for people who are on the fence about supporting legal marijuana, it is important to ask themselves what they want to accomplish with a continued prohibition of the substance.

He said prohibiting marijuana will not make the state better off financially, it will not keep it out of the hands of children, it will not make the state healthier and it will not promote freedom or democracy.

"In the U.S., the rates of marijuana usage have been stagnant since the '70s," said Altieri. "The current policy isn't working and its time for a new approach."

Comparisons to alcohol

Kittleman said part of the reason he thinks marijuana should be regulated is the youth that so many others are worried it would affect. He said in his conversations with young people, that it's easier for them to buy marijuana than it is to buy alcohol.

"Alcohol is closely regulated," he said. "If we did the same thing as marijuana, it might be less available for young people."

He said the state will be watching Colorado fairly carefully, but that he'd support marijuana being legalized and having similar restrictions to alcohol.

"It may not happen this year, but I think it's something we need to be looking at," Kittleman said.

Altieri tends to agree with Kittleman's line of thinking. He compared the prohibition against marijuana with the alcohol prohibition of the early 20th century.

"Today, you don't see beer distributors shooting each other in the streets of Baltimore," an activity that was not unheard of during the era when alcohol was illegal, he said.

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