Legalize Marijuana Bill Faces Uphill Battle In Md.

BERLIN — A bill introduced in the General Assembly this week would add Maryland to the growing list of states legalizing marijuana, but the measure will not likely see the light of day.

Four Baltimore City delegates this week introduced House Bill 1453, which, if approved, would legalize marijuana in Maryland under certain specific conditions. The legislation would remove criminal penalties for private possession and home-growing of limited amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older and direct the state comptroller to license marijuana retail stores, wholesale facilities and testing facilities.

The bill includes a significant excise tax of $50 per ounce on wholesale sales, the proceeds of which would offset the cost of implementing the act and also fund treatment programs to prevent alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse. The legislation would also direct the Department of Agriculture to regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, but would allow individual jurisdictions to regulate businesses that offer pot for sale. Under the proposed bill, it would still be against the law to smoke week in public, and to drive under the influence of marijuana.

While Maryland has been flirting with medical marijuana legislation, House Bill 1453 is the first outright attempt at legalizing the narcotic. Last year, Washington and Colorado passed legislation making marijuana legal for adults over 21 and establishing regulations for businesses to cultivate and sell weed to adults.

Similar legislation has already been introduced this year in Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with Pennsylvania, Nevada and Vermont expected to follow suit. While Maryland joins the list with the legislation introduced this week, local lawmakers in Annapolis don’t see the bill gaining much support this year.

“That’s not going to get any traction,” said Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38). “That bill will almost certainly die in committee this year.”

Because the bill has not yet been cross-filed, Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) said this week he has not been presented with the legislation and has not formed an opinion on it one way or the other. Mathias said he supports medical marijuana, but is not sure about embracing complete legalization.

“I’ve supported the medical marijuana efforts because I believe there is a valid need under certain conditions,” he said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to read over and form any opinion on the legalization bill because it’s only been filed in the House.”

McDermott, a career law enforcement officer, said there could be steps taken to loosen the laws on marijuana short of legalizing it.

“Right now in Maryland, simple possession results in a citation,” he said. “Over the next couple of years, it could be made a fineable offense as an alternative to complete legalization.”

While some states have already legalized pot and it appears more will soon follow, McDermott said the issue is complicated because the drug is still illegal under federal laws.

“If we relax the laws, it’s going to be a government operation,” he said. “The state government would be in the business of manufacturing drugs. It’s still illegal federally, so I don’t know how to get around that.”

Meanwhile, marijuana advocacy groups praised Delegate Curt Anderson and his co-sponsors’ legislation and called for Maryland to ease the prohibition on pot.

“Most Americans now recognize that marijuana prohibition has been just as spectacular a failure as alcohol prohibition,” said Deputy Director of Government Relations for the Marijuana Policy Project Dan Riffle. “It is time for a new, more sensible approach to marijuana in Maryland and that is what this bill proposes.”

Riffle asserted the problems caused by alcohol abuse in Maryland and across the country far outweigh similar problems caused by marijuana use.

“Our public policies should be based on the facts, and it is a fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol,” he said. “Adults should not be made criminals simply for choosing to use the less harmful product. Our law enforcement efforts should be focused on preventing and investigating serious crimes and not on arresting and prosecuting responsible adult marijuana users.”

The Marijuana Policy Project also pointed out to the potential economic gains in terms of tax revenue and jobs creation by the bid to legalize pot in Maryland. Riffle said the enormous amount of money derived from marijuana sales currently goes to criminal elements and legalizing weed could shift the revenue to state coffers.

“Marijuana sales are currently taking place in an underground market where they benefit criminals and drug cartels,” he said. “Under the law proposed by Delegate Anderson, marijuana sales would take place in tightly regulated businesses that are creating jobs and paying taxes that will benefit Maryland citizens. We hope legislators will agree that it is time to once again make prohibition a thing of the past.”