Maryland – Update!

In a year when budget cuts dominate debate in Annapolis, advocates for legalizing marijuana are mounting a renewed effort to get Maryland to follow the lead of Colorado and Washington state – if not now, then in a year or two.

A Colorado state legislator and an elected official from Seattle joined legalization supporters at a press conference in Annapolis Friday to say that voter-passed initiatives in their states are proceeding more or less smoothly to treat recreational use of cannabis much like another legal but regulated substance, alcohol.

“The sky hasn’t fallen. Things are working,” said Jonathan Singer, a Colorado state representative. He said he was one of only two lawmakers in his state to publicly endorse the 2012 voter initiative there to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

Peter S. Holmes, Seattle’s elected city attorney, said he ran on a promise to stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases, because he believed they were undermining law enforcement and public respect for the law.

Washington state is gradually proceeding to establish a regulated marijuana industry, Holmes said, with only about a third of the authorized retail outlets open so far.

Legalization efforts have fallen short twice before in Annapolis, and sponsors of this year’s bill acknowledge it’s a long shot this session, too. But they point to a recent poll indicating 53 percent of Marylanders support legalization.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who’s sponsored the previous efforts, said he believes lawmakers will eventually come around to legalizing marijuana.

Anderson said Maryland’s move last year to decriminalize possession of small amounts wasn’t enough. Although police and prosecutors in Baltimore city and a few other big counties are pursuing fewer pot cases, he said that’s not the case everywhere around the state.

“Marijuana isn’t the the drug people think it is,” he said.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law.. That casts a significant shadow on states’ efforts to legalize it, particularly in restricting marijuana producers and retailers’ access to the federally regualted banking system.

But with Congress unable or unwilling to change that, states are acting, said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who’s chief sponsor in that chamber.

“Federal drug policy has been a total failure for decades now,” he said, “and states are moving ahead.”

Anderson, Raskin and other supporters say they hope lawmakers will warm to the idea of legalization after hearing how other states are managing it and avoiding pitfalls.

According to Singer, there’s been no increase in teen marijuana use in Coloradio since it was legalized, no increase in driving-while-impaired offenses and no jump in violent crime related to drug dealing. What’s more, he said, it’s brought $60 million in tax revenue to the state.

Even so, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he does not believe legislators were ready to approve legalization.

“We’re going to move forward with medical marijuana, try to solve people’s aches and ills,” Miller said. “If it’s a valuable resource for people with cancer, we’re going to make it available to them.

“But in terms of making it available to the general public,” the Calvert County Democrat added, “I don’t anticipate that happening any time soon.” Lawmakers still have questions about keeping marijuana away from children and teens and how to end the black market in illegal pot sales, he said.

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