On 4/20, Maryland's Democratic candidates for governor push plans to legalize marijuana

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Maryland Democrat Alec Ross celebrated April 20, the informal national holiday for marijuana aficionados, by releasing a video featuring as many weed puns as he could muster in 30-seconds.

The candidate for governor reached eight before delivering the punchline: “We have a fully baked plan to legalize and regulate marijuana in the state of Maryland.”

He’s not alone. Many of the Democrats in the crowded seven-way governor’s race also support legalizing marijuana for recreational use, taxing it and using the hundreds of millions of annual tax money to pay for something.

States across the country have moved to legalize the drug for adult use. In Maryland, the idea is popular: each spring for the past three years, about 60 percent of residents tell the Goucher Poll they support legalized marijuana.

The only Democratic candidate currently in state office, state Sen. Richard Madaleno, sponsored legislation last year that would have legalized recreational marijuana and imposed a 9 percent tax that would pay for community colleges, opioid addiction, overdose prevention, public safety, job training and public education.

Ross’ plan would legalize marijuana purchases of up to 1 ounce for adults over 21 years old, license every aspect of the industry and use the anticipated revenue to pay for regulating and policing the industry, as well as bolstering the state’s general fund. Ross, a tech entrepreneur, said he didn’t think the money should be earmarked for a specific project. He also proposes that people be allowed to grow as many as six plants at home for personal use.

“lt makes little sense for marijuana to be illegal in this day and age, and the costs of doing so are increasingly unbearable,” Ross said on his website. “Meanwhile, we are prosecuting and incarcerating people for nonviolent crimes and crushing their chances for social mobility. It is time to create a taxed, regulated market for safe and legal marijuana.”

Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, spent Friday speaking at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. He has made legalizing marijuana part of his plan for criminal justice reform.

“You can’t have a PR approach to criminal justice reform,” Jealous said on Twitter on Tuesday. “You actually have to do what works.”

He made the rounds in media interviews this week pitching that Maryland is ready and should legalize marijuana. His proposal would use the tax proceeds to invest in crime-fighting programs, drug treatment and education.

Democrat Krish Vignarajah, a former policy adviser for first lady Michelle Obama, said legalizing marijuana can help reduce opioid-related overdoses, and the tax money could be an important way to increase funding for education.

“Ultimately, I believe we need to treat drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal one,” Vignarajah said in a statement Friday. “This philosophy guides my approach to liberalization measures. We need policy that sensibly follows the evidence, rather than the drug enforcement dogma that too often penalizes our most vulnerable communities due to their ethnic, racial or socioeconomic status.”

At a public forum in February, Democrat Jim Shea, former chair of the Venable law firm, said he supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

"Currently, Maryland is forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from recreational marijuana legalization, while too many of our citizens — most of them African-American — face criminal punishment for marijuana offenses,” Shea said in a statement Friday. “That has to change. We must also work towards expunging past low-level criminal records from this era of marijuana prohibition."

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, also a Democrat, said at the same forum this winter he supported decriminalization of the drug but did not outright endorse legalizing it.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project’s voter guide, which tracks candidates’ positions on marijuana issues, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, another Democrat, has not take a public position on legalizing marijuana.

His campaign on Friday released a statement that fell short of advocating for legalized marijuana. A spokesman declined to say whether Kamenetz would push for legalization if elected.

“Legalization is a rational next step after the full implementation of medical marijuana and it would provide an additional revenue stream to the state,” Kamenetz said in the statement. “It will be important to observe and adopt lessons from states that have already implemented this policy.”

The winner of the June 26 primary election will face incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

Hogan has not publicly taken a position on whether to legalize marijuana. In 2017, he declined to say whether he thought the decision should be up to the voters — as some lawmakers had pressed to do. The governor’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Map: Medical marijuana dispensaries open in Maryland »

ecox@baltsun.com

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