Maryland could put the power to legalize marijuana in the hands of voters.
State lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide in 2018 whether to tax and regulate marijuana in the same manner as alcohol — potentially making Maryland the first state in the region with a full-fledged legal marijuana market.
The legislation, which is still being drafted, faces an uphill battle in Annapolis. But it draws from the same political playbook that lawmakers used a decade ago to legalize casinos, and some powerful legislative leaders say they will not stand in the way.
Public opinion on marijuana has moved toward legalization so swiftly — by double-digit percentage points in just two years, according to some polls — that adult-use marijuana advocates in the General Assembly believe it is no longer a question of whether the state will legalize it.
"It's a matter of when," said Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat who is leading the referendum effort. "It's become very clear that this is no longer a fringe issue. It's totally mainstream."
Some predict putting marijuana legalization on the ballot could drive up Democratic turnout in 2018, when the party is hoping to unseat popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The governor declined to take a position on the referendum.
Bills to legalize marijuana have failed in committee for the past several years. Passing a constitutional amendment to allow the drug would require significantly more support than ordinary legislation — three-fifths of the Democrat-dominated legislature, rather than a simple majority.
Many lawmakers see sending an issue to voters as a different choice.
Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Ed Kasemeyer, for instance, said he would vote against any legalization plan. But letting the voters decide?
"I don't have a problem with that," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Southern Maryland Democrat, has said he "has no objection" to a constitutional amendment allowing a referendum on recreational marijuana. But he plans to focus first on revamping the state's fledgling medical marijuana program, which has been criticized for having too little minority participation.
Republican leaders did not reject a constitutional amendment outright but questioned whether it should be a top priority.
"I'm all for the expansion of citizens initiatives, but I really think we should we start with the ability to petition any new budget matters — such as newly imposed taxes," said Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey of the Eastern Shore.
The referendum initiative is part of a multi-prong push by marijuana legalization advocates to capitalize on the growing popularity of legal pot — and the millions of dollars it has generated for other states.
Del. Curt Anderson, the Democrat who chairs the Baltimore delegation, will again be one of the sponsors of legislation that would legalize marijuana and dedicate most of the tax money to schools.
The debate, he said, has shifted as advocates have more data from states that have legalized marijuana — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — to back up their case and as the state again faces a structural budget deficit.
Four more states — California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — voted in November to legalize pot. Congress has blocked the District of Columbia's referendum to sell and tax marijuana.
Anderson and the Marijuana Policy Project advocacy group are putting their energy into passing bills to legalize marijuana and tax it.
They hope emphasizing the big financial windfall will apply pressure to those resistant to legalization.
But Anderson said there's an obvious political advantage to sending the matter to voters instead.
"Certainly it's an easier vote," he said. "But is it an easier vote for enough people?"
A decade ago, lawmakers were at an impasse over whether to legalize casinos. Despite the division, three-fifths of the legislature agreed to let voters decide if they wanted to amend the state's constitution to allow it. The measure passed in 2008.
Then, however, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch advocated for a public referendum. Busch, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel County, said last week he has not been persuaded the timing is right to ask voters to legalize recreational marijuana.
"It would be unwise for us to go down that path at this time, even before we have medical marijuana up and running," he said.
A referendum could have implications for Hogan's re-election bid. Polls show support for legalizing marijuana tends to be strongest among Democrats and young people. Hogan's surprise 2014 victory in deep-blue Maryland came amid particularly low turnout.
"If this is on the ballot, it should bring out some people who otherwise would not have showed up," said Michael Hanmer, research director at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
Sixty-one percent of Maryland residents support legalizing marijuana, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll that Hanmer helped direct in October. Support had increased 12 percentage points from 2014.
Based on current polls, Hanmer said, Maryland would likely vote to legalize marijuana.
Unlike the other states that legalized pot by popular vote, Maryland lacks a ballot initiative process that can be launched by citizens. There are only two ways to put laws before voters. Residents can petition to overturn a law passed by the General Assembly, or the General Assembly can propose a change to the state constitution.
Legalizing marijuana by ballot initiative would make it cumbersome to tweak the program or solve problems later. Lawmakers would need to return to the voters for every change.
Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said he objects to a referendum because it's unwieldy and violates the principles of representative democracy.
"You could take every high-profile issue and throw it on the ballot just to get people to come out," he said. "It's really cute, but that's not the way that you're supposed to do this stuff."
Several other lawmakers declined to take a position.
"It's never a bad idea to take things to the voter," said Del. Jay Walker, the Democrat who chairs the Prince George's County delegation. "But, yeah, in terms of how I'd vote on that, I really don't know."
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he thought if gambling was in the state constitution, "it's not too strange, then, to put marijuana in there."
But the Baltimore County Democrat was hesitant to stake out a position.
"I don't want to come out and give an answer on that definitively," he said. "I do believe at some point the voters should have their say on this. I don't know if that point is now."