By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
When the Maryland general assembly was deadlocked on passing a law to legalize gambling nearly ten years ago, it deferred to voters in the form of a referendum called Question 2 in 2008 to decide. Legal gambling was ultimately approved by a ratio of 3-to-2 votes.
Now a key state legislator wants to give the people the same opportunity to weigh in on another controversial issue, legalized marijuana. The question is, will the state’s political establishment allow it?
“We’ve got a new strategy this year to introduce a bill that would simply put it on the ballot for referendum and let the people decide,” State Delegate Curt Anderson (D-43) told the AFRO.
During the upcoming session in Annapolis, which begins in January, Anderson said he plans to introduce a referendum that would allow voters to approve the legalization of marijuana directly. He said his bill would put the question on the ballot for the 2018 midterm elections.
“We feel that folks who have not supported this bill in the past could support the idea of allowing Marylanders to decide,” he said.
It’s the latest in a series of efforts by the veteran lawmaker to help Maryland join a nationwide trend to remove the plant from under the auspice of the criminal justice system.
For Anderson and other supporters, legalizing marijuana is not just about loosening restrictions on a now illegal drug, it’s a criminal justice issue with deep roots in the state’s proven bias towards arresting African-Americans for marijuana related offenses.
As recently as 2014, over 90 percent of the Baltimore’s marijuana arrests were targeted at African-American residents, a number disproportionate to the population. In fact, a 2013 report by the Maryland ACLU found that racial disparities tied to marijuana arrests increased between 2001 and 2010, with the rate of arrest rising faster for African-Americans than Whites. In all, the report concluded, the state spent nearly $105 million in 2010 prosecuting pot related offenses.
In 2014, Anderson in conjunction with the state’s Legislative Black Caucus was instrumental in passing legislation that made possession of less than ten grams of pot subject to a criminal citation. It’s a law Anderson says has proven both popular and effective, which is why he wants the public to weigh in on the broader question of legalization.
“This will be referendum on whether or not if should be legalized like Oregon and Washington State,” he said. According to the Oregon Department of Revenue, the state brought in $50 million more than expected from marijuana tax receipts in 2016.
“We want to know what Marylanders think.”
The move comes amid another controversy over marijuana, the state’s exclusion of majority Black owned firms from the small group of firm awarded licenses to grow medical pot. The oversight prompted State Delegate Cheryl Glenn (D-45) to call for the caucus to ‘take a knee’ during the upcoming legislative session unless state leaders give a license to an African-American controlled firm.
A threat she said still stands.
“We expect when we go back to session to have an emergency bill to go out right away,” Glenn said. “We will be holding a press conference on the first day of session to announce our strategy.”
However, despite her push for more equity in medical marijuana licensing, Glenn says she is not ready to throw support behind Anderson’s proposal.
““At this point I am not ready to support recreational marijuana,” Glenn said. “We need to get medical marijuana done first.”
The office of Governor Larry Hogan did not respond to a request for comment by press time.