As the Maryland General Assembly debates whether to decriminalize or even legalize marijuana, lawmakers have plenty to say on the subject.
It’s time to acknowledge the futility of the war on drugs and lift the prohibition, say some.
Others talk about the potential benefit to public safety if pot were to be regulated and taxed as a legal substance, just like alcohol. And some express amazement that it has taken so long for baby boomers, who grew up in the 1960s and now run the country, to put an end to “reefer madness.”
But ask these same lawmakers whether they have ever lit up?
“It’s irrelevant, and I’m not going into that,” said Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), who is backing legislation to tweak the state’s medical marijuana law to make the drug more accessible to patients in need.
A handful of lawmakers admit — wink, wink — to a bit of youthful experimentation. Very few, however, are as candid as Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather R. Mizeur.
Mizeur, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County in the House of Delegates and champions marijuana legalization, grew up in a tiny Illinois farm town during the era of Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. She says she had a negative view of pot until a cancer-stricken friend encouraged her to try it. Then, in her late 30s, she inhaled — and found out it wasn’t her thing.
But it wasn’t the worst thing either, said Mizeur, who is gay and likens the current discussion about marijuana to coming out of the closet.
“I find when I’m talking about it on the campaign trail, there’s always this hushed moment of ‘Oh, my God, she’s talking about legalizing marijuana,’ ” she said. “But then there’s an opening in the dialogue, where people realize, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to talk about this, too. It’s okay, it’s not something that should be feared.’ ”
In response to written questions given to all of the gubernatorial candidates, Mizeur’s Democratic rivals, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, also said they experimented with the drug — as teenagers.
Among the Republican candidates, Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Charles County businessman Charles Lollar said they have never tried marijuana (and Craig noted that he also has never tried cigarettes). Del. Ronald A. George (Anne Arundel) sidestepped the question. Larry Hogan, who heads the watchdog group Change Maryland, declined to respond.
The Maryland General Assembly is rethinking prohibitive attitudes toward marijuana that go back at least to the 1920s. Some want to tweak the medical marijuana bill that was passed last year to make it more workable. Others, including Mizeur, have introduced bills that would decriminalize marijuana by imposing only civil penalties for possession of small amounts. Still others would outright legalize pot and regulate and tax its production, distribution and sale.
But few believe Maryland is ready to follow Colorado’s or Washington’s lead and do that — even if a cultural shift is at work. President Obama, in a recent interview with the New Yorker, said he considered smoking marijuana a vice no worse than alcohol.
A Gallup poll last fall found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, compared with 12 percent in 1969, when Gallup first posed the question. The survey also found that 38 percent of the public acknowledged trying marijuana. Apply that to the Maryland General Assembly, and that means perhaps 71 of its 188 members have had more than a second-hand whiff.
But try to find them.
“I’m convinced that this is an issue that legislators are ready to act on. I’m just not sure they’re ready to talk about it,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who sponsored a bill to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
Consider Morhaim, who as a physician sponsored Maryland’s medical marijuana bill last year.
In an expansive interview, he discussed advanced Israeli research on cannabinoids, possibly prescribing pot to alleviate appetite loss or lift the mood of terminally ill patients, and even vouched for marijuana’s comparative safety.
“In the history of medicine, the number of overdose deaths from marijuana is zero,” Morhaim said. But asked whether he’d ever tried it, Morhaim demurred. “I’m focused on the medical part, because for me it’s all about my life as a physician and the medical perspective, “he said.
(Morhaim also acknowledged that he smoked tobacco for “about a year” and then asked that his use of tobacco not be reported.)
And wait — what about Raskin?
“A lot of people in my family have asthma, including me as a little boy, so I’m terrified” of smoking, he said. “And truth is, I’m not interested in using mind-altering substances, except for Shakespeare or Bruce Springsteen.”
Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), who is running for lieutenant governor on Gansler’s ticket, said she supports decriminalization because she believes current penalties are too severe and have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinos. But she is reluctant to back legalization because, she said, it could make Maryland a magnet for people in surrounding jurisdictions where it remains illegal.
“It’s not like I have a moral thing against pot. I don’t,” said Ivey, whose husband, Glenn, is a former Prince George’s County prosecutor.
Asked whether she has ever experimented with pot, Ivey replied: “I take the Fifth.”
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who has sponsored a bill that would impose a $100 fine for possession of small amounts of pot, said he believes decriminalization would enhance public safety by redirecting law enforcement resources now devoted to marijuana-related crimes.
“I’ve always thought this is a very victimless crime,” Zirkin said.
Has he ever partaken?
“You’ll find out if I ever decide to run for president, which does not appear likely,” Zirkin said.
Two of Maryland’s most powerful politicians see which way the wind is blowing.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who grew up in tobacco country in Prince George’s, has watched tobacco go from celebrated cash crop to public menace and now sees marijuana taking the opposite trajectory. Somehow, even as an adult in the 1960s, he missed out. “I never experimented with it,” said Miller, 71.
His counterpart, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), has traveled a similar path.
“The only thing that kept me from doing it, in hindsight, was I never smoked cigarettes and I was working out all the time,” said Busch, 67, who grew up in Annapolis.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to legalization is Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Vallario (D-Prince George’s) is not shy about killing legislation he doesn’t like, and he doesn’t much like the idea of legalizing pot, especially since it’s still forbidden under federal law. He said he has never tried the drug.
“If it was against the law, you just don’t do it,” Vallario said. (Asked where he was during Woodstock, Vallario responds: “That was in New York, right?”)
Still, Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore), who has sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana, feels momentum on his side. Last year, he had three co-sponsors. This year, he said he has about 30. But Anderson said he also has taken guff from other lawmakers for his crusade, or at least its timing.
“They say, ‘Why’d you do this in an election year?’” Anderson said.
Asked whether he has tried marijuana, Anderson, 64, said he has. It was “not a big deal,” he said.
“I used it when I was in college. And I don’t think I’ve used it more than once every five years since then,” Anderson said.