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UMD Expert: State Cannabis Referendum Weighs Criminal Justice, Public Health Priorities

Maryland Poised to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use in Ballot Referendum

By Liam Farrell


There's relatively little opposition in Maryland to a ballot measure that would legalize marijuana in Maryland, a change that a UMD researcher says could lessen disproportionate enforcement impacts on marginalized communities.

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

It hasn’t received much attention this election season, but stashed away among gubernatorial and other races on Maryland voters’ ballots is a referendum question whose outcome could significantly alter drug use in the state.

If approved, ballot question 4 would add a constitutional amendment to legalize the use of cannabis by individuals who are at least 21 years of age on or after July 1, 2023; it would make Maryland the 20th state, along with Washington, D.C., to allow recreational marijuana use.

While marijuana decriminalization and legalization have been a source of political tension elsewhere, a recent Washington Post-UMD Poll showed widespread support in Maryland, with nearly three-quarters of voters in favor of the referendum.

If enacted, companion legislation passed by the General Assembly would let Marylanders 21 and older possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana and grow two plants out of public view, and allow people with possession arrests or sentences to have their records expunged or reconsidered. Lawmakers would still have to decide most details to establish and regulate a recreational cannabis industry. (Maryland legalized medical use of cannabis in 2014.)

Maryland Today spoke with Peter Reuter, a distinguished university professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the School of Public Policy and an expert on drug policy, about how public opinion changed, what problems have occurred in other states and what an ideal legal system would be.

What are some of the issues to consider in legalizing cannabis?
The driver of this movement nationally has really been the concern about the number of people that have been arrested and acquire a criminal history. It’s disproportionately minorities, particularly African Americans. If that is your principal concern, then legalization accomplishes the goal.

If you have a public health orientation, it’s more complicated. The price will go down, and those who use marijuana will use it a lot more intensely. For many people, that’s not a very serious consideration, but it’s problematic.

How has it garnered such widespread support since 30 years ago, when less than a quarter of voters favored recreational legalization?
There are two things going on. One is increasing attention to the arrest figures. Even if you think marijuana is a harmful drug, criminal arrest seems excessive as a penalty. People became aware that arrests, even if they didn’t lead to jail, could have long-term consequences. The second factor was the spread of marijuana as medicine. Marijuana became increasingly normal both in terms of use and in terms of distribution.

The combination of those things over a long period of time has changed public attitudes in a very fundamental way.

What lessons should Maryland learn from other states, including Arizona, California and Virginia, that have legalized recreational marijuana?
In recent history, the slogan of the people who advocated for legalization has sort of been realized. The slogan was, “regulate like alcohol.” If you are a public health researcher, you say, “Gee, that isn’t a very good slogan. Alcohol regulation has been a failure.”

The regulatory system that has been constructed in most states gives the industry a lot of power. You have essentially the same model, with industry involved in regulation and lots of product innovation. It’s really been surprising how much more potent legal marijuana is in comparison to illegal marijuana. From that point of view, the system is poorly designed.

As an expert and researcher, what would you see as a better system?
I am in favor of legalization. I just don’t think the American model is a good way of doing it. I would go to a system in which promotion is prohibited and where it’s regulated at least as tightly as tobacco is regulated and is taxed heavily.

We have seen very substantial decline in prices following legalization. Marijuana is dirt cheap to produce and you could tax it more and be more restrictive about how its accessed—you have to do it online, it’s delivered in plain brown packaging, it’s not the most potent and dangerous forms—a highly regulated, noncommercial model.



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