Earlier this month, marijuana was partially decriminalized in Maryland, making possession under 10 grams (about a third of an ounce) subject to a citation, a fine and no jail time.
Despite some problems with the language of the law, taking jail time off the table and ensuring no criminal records for owners of small quantities of marijuana are positive first steps in changing the state's drug policy. That said, the Maryland legislature has been far too timid in its approach and should instead adopt a Colorado-like model for legalization.
It is tempting to take a wait-and-see approach to most policies, especially when venturing into untested waters. In the case of marijuana, however, there are two major problems with this logic.
First, Colorado already presents an example of successful marijuana legalization. Crime is down, state marijuana tax revenues are up to $8 million a month as of July, and it has become harder for minors to get marijuana because pot shops are more likely to card than drug dealers.
Unfounded concerns of overdoses are also being allayed through low dose alternatives offered by vendors. It is certainly true that Maryland is different from Colorado, but legalization opponents need to show why these differences will produce radically different outcomes for legalization.
Opponents of legalization may cite tired statistics about the risk of dependency for marijuana, particularly among those who start smoking while young, but these harms are not unique to pot. These same potentials for dependency exist for alcohol, yet nobody is calling for a return to prohibition, despite estimates claiming more than 300,000 Marylanders struggle with alcohol dependency.
With marijuana legalization, however, there is the potential to reduce the stigma associated with drug addiction so affected individuals can get the help they need. Recent findings by Johns Hopkins University show that people are more likely to oppose treatment associated with drug addiction due to the negative image associated with drug use. No matter your opinion on whether drug use is a moral failing, the fact that it still carries the stigma of a criminal penalty only leads to reduced opportunities for people to get the help they need.
Second, there is a sense of urgency associated with marijuana legalization. Even if there were compelling arguments for why marijuana is on balance bad for society, drug warriors have had a dismal record of actually eliminating the problem. Simply put, we need to embrace the reality that marijuana is here to stay.
The urgency comes from the fact that while marijuana is a given, the problems associated with marijuana prohibition are not. In the state of Maryland alone, the ACLU reported that over 23,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010. These are people who have had their lives ruined through the stigma of a criminal record and, for many, time lost in prison. Those convicted of marijuana-related crimes are going to have tremendous difficulties finding employment, ultimately making them less productive than they would be as marijuana users.
There should especially be a sense of urgency among fiscal conservatives. In 2010, Maryland spent $100 million on marijuana enforcement alone. Given recent revenue shortfalls in the state budget, the government needs to make tough choices on what programs to fund. The savings from marijuana decriminalization would help free up money that could be spent on dealing with far more dangerous drug problems and the crime associated with them.
The Maryland General Assembly, through the reform passed last April, has implicitly stated that the harms of marijuana laws outweigh the benefits in the cases they have decriminalized. This is certainly true, but Maryland will only be able to unlock all of the benefits outlined above if the state embraces a bolder legalization agenda.