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Is This the Next State that Will Legalize Marijuana?

Chris Roberts

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The people of Maryland have spoken, loud and clear: Nearly two-thirds of them want recreational marijuana legalized in their state, according to polling released late last year.

In response, Maryland lawmakers—the men and women whose job it is to write laws that reflect what the people who voted them want—are indicating they may react to this clear mandate in the the way nearly every other lawmaker in America has done: By telling the people to go ahead and make their own law, if that’s indeed what they want.

As the Baltimore Sun reported on Monday, some Maryland lawmakers are pushing for marijuana legalization to be decided by a citizens’ referendum. This could happen as early as next year. If it happens, it seems a near-lock to pass: 61 percent of likely voters support legalization, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

For some people in charge, this is clear message that “it’s a matter of when” marijuana legalization happens, as state delegate David Moon, one of the main supporters behind deciding legalization by citizens’ referendum, put it. “It’s become very clear that this is no longer a fringe issue,” Moon told the Sun. “It’s totally mainstream.”

If only that were true.

Legalization is mainstream among voters, sure, but not among lawmakers. This is still such a touchy issue that the state’s elected officials will need strong convincing that passing off hard decisions like legalization to voters is a good idea.

Even this very modest step will be a hard sell.

As the Sun reported, there are more than a few shot-callers in Maryland’s state house—who would never touch legalization themselves—who aren’t convinced that letting the people give themselves what they want is a good idea. “It would be unwise for us to go down that path at this time, even before we have medical marijuana up and running,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, using the state’s nascent medical-marijuana program as an excuse.

There are some valid reasons why Maryland state delegates would want to foist legalization off on voters rather than be the ones responsible for giving the people what they want and passing a popular law themselves.

One is that lawmakers, be they Democrat or Republican, tend to be more conservative than the voters they represent. Supporting marijuana legalization will annoy law enforcement, and losing the support of police is still seen as an existential threat in a state legislature. Another is to boost turnout. Having legalization on the ballot in Colorado in 2012 is credited with helping Barack Obama win that state. Maryland Democrats want to toss out their Republican governor, and weed may be the way to do that.

But the realest and most valid reason is that this is the only way this can get done. For that, you can blame craven lawmakers as well as the legislative process itself.

Passing a constitutional amendment in the state house requires 60 percent support, rather than a simple majority. That’s a high bar—provided things get even that far. As the Sun pointed out, “bills to legalize marijuana have failed in committee for the past several years”—meaning someone, somewhere along the line decided the smart thing to do on legalization was to kill it rather than consider it.

If that weren’t maddening enough, the same could also happen with a marijuana legalization ballot initiative. In Maryland, there is no direct democracy. Citizens can’t put a law on the ballot via petition as they did in the eight others states that have to date legalized medical marijuana. State lawmakers have to agree to put it on the ballot. And there are some brave and true representatives of the people who think the people can’t be trusted with making their own decisions.

Per the Sun:

Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican, said he objects to a referendum because it’s unwieldy and violates the principles of representative democracy.

“You could take every high-profile issue and throw it on the ballot just to get people to come out,” he said. “It’s really cute, but that’s not the way that you’re supposed to do this stuff.”

Forgetting for a second that an American elected official just dismissed people coming out to vote as “cute,” Hough is right. People like him are supposed to write and pass laws. When it doesn’t happen, citizens are supposed to take action—by voting anti-democratic stooges like him out, and passing their own laws by referendum, if need be.

Chris Roberts is a High Times Staff writer based in San Francisco, just across the Bay from America's most cannabis-friendly city, and has been covering marijuana and drug policy since 2009.

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