The state of Maryland has taken its first tumultuous steps toward decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. Some speculate that this is just the first of several changes that will pave the way toward legalizing the drug for recreational use. As Colorado and Washington have demonstrated, there are substantial benefits to marijuana legalization.
The Legal Landscape
Marijuana is showing signs of recovery from the stigma it has suffered since the early twentieth century. The plant’s less-desirable effects were all too visible in past decades, while its health benefits remained undetectable due to crude testing procedures. Only recently has the value of cannabis in medicine come to light. In a stunning turn of events, 24 US states have passed measures legalizing the plant for medicinal use. A further two states, Colorado and Washington, have even legalized certain amounts of pot for recreational purposes. The District of Columbia is now allowing its citizens to possess up to an ounce of weed at a time. Beyond that, citizens of the nation’s capital will pay a civil fine, but they won’t face jail time.
Despite this change in attitude, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance at the federal level. This puts marijuana—and most drugs derived from it—in the company of hard drugs such as opioids and opium derivatives. The US government on the whole has consistently denied that cannabis has any medicinal qualities—indeed, this a prerequisite for assignment to the Schedule 1 list—despite the fact that it holds a patent for its efficacy as an antioxidant and neuroprotective agent. Perhaps the states’ newfound acceptance of the plant’s medicinal qualities is evidence that such federal doublethink doesn’t hold much sway in today’s interconnected world. US Patent No. 6630507 was issued to The United States of America on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Since Colorado legalized recreational use of cannabis in early 2014, Denver has not experienced any increase in violent crime. In fact, property crime fell in January and February by 14.6 percent, while the overall violent crime rate remained steady. Meanwhile, a nationwide poll conducted by CBS found that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana.
Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley (D), has stated flat out that he will support any bill that decriminalizes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Maryland, like the District of Columbia, has historically been one of the most aggressive enforcers of anti-cannabis laws. But such aggression comes at a cost. In fact, only two US states have higher arrest rates for possession of marijuana than Maryland. As the state uses precious tax dollars to prosecute and house drug offenders, its policymakers are forced to look on as Colorado and Washington rake in millions in marijuana-fueled tax dollars.
On April 5th of 2014, Maryland’s state senate voted on a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of weed, and it passed 78 to 55. The bill relegates the possession of more than 10 grams of cannabis to the civil rather than the criminal courts. Proponents of the bill pointed to the fact that African Americans are statistically more likely to receive jail time than Caucasians for possessing the drug, and that a simple way to end this discrimination is to lessen the consequences of possession. Delegate Keiffer J. Mitchell, Jr. had this to say: “We’re sending the message that we’re not going to allow small amounts of marijuana possession to ruin the lives of our young people.”
In a statement, Governor O’Malley recalled his years as a prosecutor, stating that he had believed that legalization of the drug would endanger the public safety. The governor went on to say that most citizens no longer consider the drug particularly threatening.
Benefits of Marijuana Legalization
Even marijuana’s staunchest critics are forced to concede that its legalization is good for the economy. Marijuana prohibition costs state and federal governments a staggering $17.4 billion per year. Jeffrey Miron of Harvard University has predicted that the legal marijuana industry is currently worth $1.53 billion. Miron went on to state that by 2019, the marijuana market could be worth $10.2 billion. This money doesn’t just benefit cannapreneurs. As with everything else, state governments will take a healthy chunk off the top for themselves. In the first two months of 2014, Colorado alone earned $6.17 million in tax revenue. The state has also added 7,500 to 10,000 marijuana industry jobs so far in 2014. There’s every reason to assume that Maryland policymakers would love to shift from its pro-prosecution stance to one of tolerance if the result would be job creation and a steady source of tax income. Time will tell whether the state truly adopts a pro-cannabis stance.