Pubdate: Tue, 27 Feb 2018
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2018 The Baltimore Sun Company


There isn't a better reader of the tea lives in Annapolis than Senate
President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He's been saying for a couple of
years now that legalization of recreational marijuana in Maryland --
something that seemed like a far-out idea when former Del. Heather
Mizeur made it a central plank of her 2014 gubernatorial campaign --
is inevitable. We're inclined to believe him. Public attitudes on the
drug have shifted rapidly in recent years, and it is now legal for
recreational use in nine states and (sort of) Washington, D.C. The
most recent polls on the issue report that about 60 percent of
Maryland voters support legalization. At least four of the seven
Democrats running to unseat Gov. Larry Hogan have voiced support for
some form of it. But legalization still may not happen as fast as
proponents might like.

With the exception of Vermont, every state that has legalized
recreational marijuana has done so through a ballot initiative, often
over the objections of governors and legislative leaders.The only kind
of referendum that's allowed under Maryland's constitution is one in
which voters petition to repeal a new law that the General Assembly
has enacted; there is no mechanism for voters to directly propose
legislation. That means supporters of recreational marijuana will need
to convince 71 members of the House of Delegates and 24 senators
(though in reality, probably 29 to avoid a filibuster) to vote for
legalization. If the governor isn't on board and vetoes the bill, the
threshold goes up. Given the cautiousness of many lawmakers when it
comes to an issue like this, that's a heavy lift.

Ironically, though, many see what should be a harder road to 
legalization to actually be the most likely path: a constitutional 
amendment. That avoids the question of a gubernatorial veto but requires 
supermajorities of both chambers - 85 votes in the House and 29 in the 
Senate. Yet some lawmakers who would oppose legalization might be 
willing to vote for such an amendment because it leaves the ultimate 
decision in the hands of voters, who would be asked whether to ratify it 
in the next election.

We have been and remain wary of the effort to legalize recreational 
marijuana here. We have learned much from the experience of 
early-adopter states, but key questions like legalization's effects on 
public health, impaired driving and underage use remain unsettled. There 
is, as far as we're concerned, no need to rush in to this, particularly 
given the state's moves to decriminalize possession and make the drug 
available for those suffering from certain illnesses and chronic 
conditions. But if and when Maryland does take the next step, the one 
thing we should absolutely not do is legalize marijuana through a 
constitutional amendment.

We've tried this route before. In 2007, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley 
convinced the legislature, which had blocked legalization of slots 
during the term of his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., to 
put the matter on the ballot as a constitutional amendment - not because 
it was necessary to amend the constitution but because it broke the 
political logjam in Annapolis. One of the talking points at the time was 
that it would protect Marylanders from further expansion of gambling by 
enshrining the details in the constitution. That protection didn't mean 
much; gambling interests managed to get an expansion back on the ballot 
a mere four years later in what proved to be the most expensive (by far) 
public campaign around any election issue in Maryland history, with 
dueling casino giants spending tens of millions to persuade the public. 
Putting the issue in the constitution also meant that other details, 
like the precise number of slot machines, the locations where casinos 
could be built and the precise uses for the taxes they generated could 
only be changed through another amendment.

There was no legal reason to legalize slots through the constitution, 
and doing so neither closed the door on further expansion of gambling 
nor provided the state with the flexibility to manage the program in the 
best way possible. Legalizing marijuana through the constitution would 
likely lead to the same problems. The proposal to do so that's pending 
this year would, for example, specify the precise amount of marijuana in 
regular or concentrated form a person could legally possess; how many 
plants a person could grow; how many of them could be flowering at any 
given time; and how much could be shared with a friend. More broadly, 
the proposed amendment anticipates a particular regulatory structure of 
commercial growers that might not necessarily be the best model.

Marylanders already have a chance to make their views on legalization 
known. They can and should ask candidates for governor and the General 
Assembly to stake out positions on the issue, and they should vote in 
the primary and general elections accordingly. Whoever is elected this 
fall should make the hard decisions about whether and how Maryland 
should legalize recreational marijuana and not take the easy way out of 
putting the question on the ballot.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt