There is a tradition in Maryland and in many other states where issues of great importance are decided by voter referendum. This kind of direct democracy is one of the checks and balances on a state’s legislature and governor. In Maryland, controversial statutes related to handguns and reproductive rights have been taken to voter referendum. In other cases, a referendum was required to ratify a change to the state constitution by the Maryland General Assembly. Such was the case with the legalization of slot machines in 2008, casino table games in 2012 and sports betting in 2020. Voters supported all three measures. And whatever one may think of the growth of casino gambling — as vital moneymaker for public schools or scourge of the gambling-addicted — it’s clear the majority of Marylanders supported those decisions and it wasn’t just the politicians inside the State House bubble.
The issue that now presents itself to the General Assembly is whether Maryland should join the growing number of U.S. states (at least 18, plus the District of Columbia and Guam) to legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults. Cannabis has been legally sold for medical use in Maryland since 2017. Yet some people struggle with the concept of full legalization given that pot remains illegal on the federal level. Will it lead to more use by minors? Will it put more impaired drivers on the road? How will unauthorized sales and use be treated? And, even for those who support legalization, there are genuine concerns that whatever private companies are eventually licensed to sell weed, they include significant minority participation.
On Thursday, a Senate committee considered legislation offered by Baltimore Sen. Jill Carter that would bypass the referendum process entirely. Under Senate Bill 692, legalization would move forward under a much-faster timetable — by July 1 of this year. Her argument for this approach has some merit. She believes it’s needed to right a longstanding wrong and that is the disparity in treatment of low-income African Americans who are criminally charged with possession, use and distribution of cannabis versus more affluent (and more often white) Marylanders who are more apt to go to a marijuana dispensary and acquire their cannabis legally with a complaint of chronic pain or nausea and a physician’s approval. Long before medical legalization, it’s been pretty obvious the “war on drugs” had far worse and too often lethal consequences for the former than it ever did for the latter.
But here’s where we part company with Senator Carter and find ourselves agreeing with House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and her push for a referendum. First, voters should have a say. The fact they are likely to approve, at least if recent polls are to believed, is irrelevant. Their participation gives the move greater seriousness of purpose. And, on a district by district basis, it would likely demonstrate to reluctant lawmakers that their constituents support the measure, too, which could prove vital down the road if further changes are made to the law. A successful vote would also help send an unmistakable message to Washington that change is needed on the national level.
And, finally, we are skeptical that all the complexities of legalization can be ironed out before July 1. One of the more important is for significant minority participation in this new and likely highly-profitable venture. The first step to accomplish that goal would be to conduct a disparity study which is needed to gauge the potential for minority participation in any government procurement and can take months. How shameful it would be if legalization moved forward but minority-owned firms were shut out — as they were initially when medical cannabis was first legalized.
There are still complexities to be worked out, of course. It would be tragic if legalization passed the General Assembly, but police and prosecutors continued to aggressively enforce soon-to-be-obsolete possession laws in the months ahead. That has happened in other states. It ought not happen in Maryland. Surely, law enforcement agencies and the various state’s attorneys can agree that decriminalization means exactly what it implies. Moving forward, it’s time cannabis was treated more like alcohol, as a regulated product for adult use. That’s where much of the country has already gone and where Maryland ought to be headed — with appropriate caution and forbearance.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.