Maryland Democrats Running For Governor Embrace Marijuana

Photo Credit: Kate Patterson

Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Ben Jealous made a strong public call for legalizing marijuana Friday, two months ahead of the June primary, giving a keynote address at the National Cannabis Festival’s policy summit held at the Newseum in Washington.

Several of his rivals for the Democratic nomination have also come out for legalization, an issue that may drive some progressives to the polls.

“If you want to stop the bloodshed of it being regulated by bullets, we have to regulate it by law,” said Jealous, former national president of the NAACP. He called for “full legalization of cannabis in Maryland for adult use.”

Jealous and other civil rights leaders have long focused on other issues in revising the criminal justice system, but he says the time for legalizing pot has come. Advocates for marijuana say its prohibition puts too many people — particularly people of color — in jail or leaves them with criminal records. They say it also facilitates violence between dealers and ties up police resources that could be better spent on more serious crime.

“There comes a time when the evidence that something’s the right thing to do is just too overwhelming,” Jealous said.

Marijuana legalization has become increasingly popular with voters, especially younger ones. In January, the Pew Research Center found 61 percent of Americans support legalization, with support reaching 70 percent among millennials. Nine states have legalized marijuana, while an additional 13 have decriminalized it, meaning possession of small amounts are not subject to criminal prosecution, but possession of large amounts and sales remain illegal.

The National Cannabis Policy Summit is a gathering of activists and leaders from government, business, the health care industry, veterans groups, and civil rights organizations to discuss marijuana policy.

Jealous was followed onstage by the District’s attorney general, Karl A. Racine (D), who spoke three years after Washington began allowing residents to cultivate and possess small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

Racine said the criminalization of marijuana and mass incarceration perpetuate racial disparities. While the District has been a leader in decriminalization efforts, he said, it still confronts many obstacles — some thrown up by Congress — in implementing a regulatory framework and achieving legalization.

This year, Maryland’s Democratic-majority legislature considered a bill to put legalization on the ballot, but the legislation didn’t advance. Some politicians are waiting to see how the state’s so-far shaky rollout of medical marijuana goes.

Asked after his speech whether legalization might help turn out his progressive supporters, Jealous said his campaign is “not about running to the right or running to the left; it was about running toward the people.”

Legalizing marijuana is a “people issue,” he said.

One of his most serious primary opponents, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, has not revealed a stance on legalization. A spokeswoman said Friday he plans to do so in a policy announcement in the coming weeks.

But other primary candidates have come out in favor.

“Legalization is a rational next step after the full implementation of medical marijuana, and it would provide an additional revenue stream to the state,” Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said through a spokesman. “It will be important to observe and adopt lessons from states that have already implemented this policy.”

State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) sponsored bills last year that would have legalized sales and possession of cannabis under certain circumstances and imposed a 9 percent excise tax.

“I will champion this issue and make it one of my priorities as governor,” he told the Marijuana Policy Project as that organization put together a voting guide for the race.

Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross tweeted a link to a YouTube video Friday in which he offered: “Some nugs of wisdom inspired by my fully baked plan to legalize recreational marijuana in Maryland.”

He added: “The jokes are fun, but it really is high time we do away with antiquated drug laws and enforcement policies.”

Another Democratic candidate, attorney Jim Shea, said legalization would not only foster justice, but also bring in revenue for state services.

“Currently, Maryland is forgoing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from recreational marijuana legalization, while too many of our citizens — most of them African American — face criminal punishment for marijuana offenses,” he said through a spokeswoman. “That has to change.”

And former Michelle Obama aide Krishanti Vignarajah also supports legalization.

“Ultimately, I believe we need to treat drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal one,” she said in a statement Friday. “We need policy that sensibly follows the evidence, rather than the drug enforcement dogma that too often penalizes our most vulnerable communities due to their ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic status.”

Perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe said, “I disagree with Mr. Jealous 100 percent.” He said Friday he would, however, support legalizing medical marijuana in Maryland, which he did not realize has already been done.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) did not follow up Friday on a request for his position.

Some strategists had speculated that the failed effort to add a marijuana-legalization question to the ballot might have helped turn out young and other Democratic-leaning voters against the popular governor in the general election. It’s also possible that progressive candidates might be too extreme to beat Hogan, especially in moderate districts where he has strong support.