Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Let’s Get Maryland Marijuana Reform Rolling

   State with legal medical cannabis.
   State with decriminalized cannabis possession laws.*
   State with both medical and decriminalization laws.
   State with legalized cannabis.
Two recent studies by the ACLU and PewResearch Center suggest that marijuana laws are not being reformed as the public demands.  In fact, the studies suggest just the opposite: that marijuana laws are being enforced more than ever before, in a time where legalization is becoming favored by citizens.  But what can we, as citizens who frequently feel powerless to change the laws of the State, do to expedite such reform?

A recent national survey conducted by PewResearch Center prompts scrutiny of our country’s marijuana laws.  As most are aware, the country has begun to view marijuana more favorably.  According to the survey, 52% of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana.  This number has increased from just 36% in2008, and up from 12% in 1969.   The ACLU of Maryland recently conducted a study and found a similar number of Maryland residents favor legalization.

This alarming study on Maryland’s policies regarding marijuana suggests that the state has been ignoring the recent trend of citizen support for marijuana legalization.  The study found that arrests for marijuana possession increased by 34% from 2001 to 2010.  However, a possible explanation may be that with more citizens in favor of legalization, there are more citizens willing to use marijuana, providing police with more criminals to arrest.  According to the study by ACLU, in 2010 alone, Maryland spent $106 MILLION enforcing these outdated laws against its citizens who largely support the elimination of criminal penalties for marijuana possession.  Perhaps not so surprisingly, the ACLU found a significant racial disparity within these arrests, despite the fact that whites and blacks use marijuana at comparable rates.

This blog does not focus on this alarming racial disparity.  While the racial disparity is an indication of an extreme misuse of police powers, and cannot be overlooked, I would like to focus on the abundant loss of liberties and waste of funding spent on enforcing these laws in a state where the majority of citizens think marijuana should be legal.  The cost of criminalizing such victimless crimes forces us to consider other alternatives, and if necessary, attempt to bring the arrest rate to zero.

In order to properly consider other options, we first must look at the current effects resulting from the system as it is now.  The above mentioned annual cost is just the tip of the iceberg.  To get a look at the full picture, we will look at another state with a different system in place.  We will then compare the population size and public views on marijuana to ensure the comparison is meaningful.

Colorado, a state which recently legalized marijuana, can be easily compared to Maryland.  Maryland and Colorado have a similar percentage of citizens in favor of legalization, 53% of Maryland citizens are in favor of legalization, as compared to the 54.8% of Colorado citizens who voted for marijuana legalization in 2012.  Additionally, Maryland has approximately 700,000 more residents than Colorado.  Colorado is projecting marijuana sales to yield $67 Million dollars in tax revenue.  Therefore, we could expect Maryland to not only save $106 Million, but to also gain at least $67 Million.

But how can we push for legalization and in the meantime, an end to these arrests?  For the former, we can contact our representatives and vote.  This is the only way to make our demands come true.  The end of these arrests is another issue.  For this I look to our biggest power as a citizen: jury nullification.  A jury may acquit a defendant without question, even if the defendant is factually guilty.  Jury nullification sends prosecutors a message about “misplaced enforcement priorities” or “abusive prosecutions.”  With enough acquittals, prosecutors will be forced to change their priorities.  When prosecutors change their priorities and no longer prosecute for possession of marijuana, officers will likely follow. 

It is clear that Maryland would benefit from marijuana legalization, and that the people are open to the idea.  It is also clear that there is a lot of progress that needs to be made in Maryland regarding marijuana reform.  While our immediate power is minimal, we can voice our opinions in ways that have an effect on the state, and may ultimately lead to a change in policy.

Jonathan Yunes
Junior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner 

Image by Lokal_Profil via Wikimedia Commons.

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