Cennamology Chief Editor
Larry Hogan, Maryland's new Republican governor who was elected in November to the surprise of many pundits, is set to take office tomorrow. In the few months since his election day victory, the new governor indicated two problems high on the policy agenda that his administration plans to address: reducing Maryland's $600 million budget deficit without raising taxes and tackling the growing number of deaths due to heroin overdose in the state.
There is a way the Hogan administration can kill two birds with one stone: marijuana legalization.
If Gov. Hogan wants to find a policy that would help solve both of the main problems he is prioritizing, as well as earn a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker, then pursuing the full legalization of the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana is the most effective way to do it. During his time as Gov.-elect, he expressed concern over the difficulty of reducing the budget deficit without raising taxes and also declared a state of emergency due to the rising number of heroin overdose deaths in the state, and announced his intention to create a task force to address the problem.
Another pressing problem is that Maryland has recently experienced a troubling rise in deaths from heroin overdoses. In Hogan's home county of Anne Arundel alone, there were 37 more heroin deaths from January to July of 2014 than there were in all of 2013. This is a very serious trend and the legalization of recreational marijuana will reduce the likelihood that Marylanders will come into contact with heroin dealers, as I will explain later.
What full legalization would mean:
A policy of marijuana legalization for Maryland would involve the full legalization of marijuana as it has played out in Colorado, which voted to legalize the drug in 2012. Under this policy, adults age 21 and older will be able to purchase marijuana from privately-owned dispensaries that will be licensed and regulated by the government. Citizens will also be allowed to plant up to six marijuana seeds on their property at a time, and manufacturing marijuana seeds will also be permitted in the state.
Essentially, the policy would have Maryland regulate marijuana in a similar fashion to how it regulates alcohol. The licensing and regulation of private dispensaries will be overseen by a state bureau of marijuana control, to ensure that they are complying with the new laws and regulations regarding marijuana. Counties will have the option whether to allow dispensaries to be privately-owned or to only allow marijuana to be purchased from stores run by county marijuana control boards. This variance by county is similar to how alcohol is regulated in Maryland, as distilled spirits are only purchased in Montgomery County from stores run by the county liquor control board, and privately-owned liquor stores are only allowed to sell beer and wine. Alcohol regulations in neighboring Prince George’s County are different, as privately-owned liquor stores are allowed to sell whisky, vodka, and rum along with beer and wine.
Therefore, while the tax rate, revenue collection, and age requirement will be set by the state government, the county governments will be allowed to determine whether distribution is conducted in the private or public sector. Privately-owned dispensaries will be the default, and permitted in a county unless the county government passes a law mandating that the sale of all marijuana be done directly by the control boards. Even with the power to determine the source from which customers could purchase marijuana, counties will not be allowed to ban it.
The economic benefits of a new industry:
Since Hogan has made it clear that tax increases are off-the-table, another way to close the state’s $600 million budget shortfall would be to expand the tax base. One way to do this is through job creation, and a legal marijuana industry in Maryland would achieve that. Colorado, a state with a population of about 700,000 fewer people than Maryland that enacted the proposed policy in 2012, is projected to have created 7,500 to 10,000 new jobs because of the marijuana industry.
These dispensary managers, cannabis processors, seed harvesters and manufacturers, regulators, and other industry employees will be paying state taxes, bringing in more revenue without having to increase the burden on current taxpayers.
Taxing marijuana in a similar fashion to alcohol will reap massive financial benefits that will allow Hogan to pursue his campaign promise of cutting taxes in other areas. The Colorado budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 projects that the tax revenue that marijuana sales will bring the state is around $98 million. In Washington State, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana the same time Colorado did, the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council projected that the taxes and fees obtained directly from the sale of marijuana will amount to $190 million over four years. An estimate from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services projects that Maryland will earn $134.6 million annually if the proposed policy is enacted. These numbers only include the money obtained directly from taxes and fees on the sale of marijuana, and do not take into account the additional tax revenue that would result from the expansion of the tax base.
Closing the “gateway” to heroin through marijuana legalization:
It may seem strange to some people to suggest that easing access to one drug will lead to a decrease in the use of another, but the research indicates that legalizing recreational marijuana will likely decrease the consumption of more addictive and deadly drugs, including heroin.
Opponents of legalization often claim that marijuana is a “gateway” drug, meaning that once a person starts using it, they will inevitably go down a path towards the use of more dangerous and addictive substances. However, it is not the marijuana itself that endangers people. Instead, it is the illegality of marijuana that is the real gateway towards heroin and cocaine.
When a non-addictive substance like marijuana is illegal, people who wish to use it will obtain it from illicit and unregulated sources. These sources are often criminal drug dealers whose inventories contain a wide variety of substances that are more dangerous than marijuana. Drug dealers have an incentive to introduce clients to the more addictive substances in their inventory, like heroin, instead of keeping them on a cheaper and non-addictive drug like marijuana.
Drug dealers prefer clients to purchase harder drugs instead of marijuana because clients who purchase the more addictive heroin will come back to the dealer more often and be more willing to give him more of their money. This gives dealers a strong economic incentive to use marijuana as a tool to first expand their market and later convince customers to “upgrade” to substances that will give them more intense highs. Full legalization will take away this tool from dealers, as those who seek marijuana will no longer need to obtain it through illegal channels. In short, marijuana users who later go on to try harder drugs often do so only after being manipulated by the very dealers who sell them marijuana. Therefore, the only group that will be harmed economically by this policy are the very drug dealers who share the brunt of the responsibility for Maryland's rising heroin deaths.
Therefore, the legalization of the use and sale of recreational marijuana means that those who wish to use the drug will get it from dispensaries that will be highly regulated by the state. If marijuana had already been legal in the state, it is not unreasonable to suppose that many Marylanders who have tragically died from heroin overdoses would still be alive. This is because they would not have been exposed to the illicit drug market. Instead, they would have obtained marijuana from a safe and legal source, instead of a criminal who has an incentive to get others hooked on dangerous drugs.
Addressing the criticisms of the policy:
Prominent anti-marijuana organizations, including The Heritage Foundation and their political action fund, will fight strongly against this proposal. Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress and an outspoken opponent of marijuana policy reform, will be a strong voice among the opposition. This is evident by the legislation he recently introduced that blocks the District of Columbia from enacting a similar policy that was affirmed by the voters.
The opponents’ main argument will be that the properties of marijuana make it a gateway drug towards heroin and cocaine, making the case that this proposal will exacerbate Maryland’s heroin problem rather than help it. Another argument would be that marijuana will increase automobile accident deaths because they claim that some people will inevitably get behind the wheel of a car while high. Opponents will also make the case that, similar to the situation with alcohol, people under 21 will have relatively easy access to marijuana through a friend or family member over 21.
Each of these criticisms are easily countered. Firstly, the studies have shown that criminal dealers have an economic incentive to get customers who are buying marijuana to buy harder, more addictive drugs, making the dealers the gateway to heroin, not the marijuana. As already stated, legalization will provide safe pathways for citizens to purchase marijuana from dispensaries that do not expose them to the illicit drug market.
The claim that marijuana legalization will increase fatal automobile accidents and driving under the influence of pot has absolutely no evidence to back it up. Colorado transportation records indicate that the reverse may be true, and have shown that state highway fatalities have reached a near-historic low after marijuana legalization. So this criticism of marijuana reform is based on pure speculation and gut feelings that have zero basis in actual research.
Studies are split on whether legalization will increase the rate of marijuana use among teenagers. However, it is preferred that teenagers who do use marijuana get it from a responsible family member than a drug dealer who will try to get them hooked on heroin. So before you let any of Nancy Grace's fact-free tirades against marijuana reform screaming "think of the children, think of the children" convince you that the substance is a life-or-death danger to children just think about this: would you rather have your son or daughter get marijuana from you, the parent, or from some drug dealer who couldn't care less about your child's well-being.
In the weeks after tomorrow's inauguration, Hogan will need to lay out a clear economic and social path for Maryland. He has already acknowledged that part of his administration’s vision is to reduce Maryland’s budget deficit as well as the death rate for heroin overdose. Full legalization of recreational marijuana will not solve all of Maryland’s budget woes, nor will it bring the heroin overdose death rate to zero, but it will certainly bring us closer to that possibility in the long term. If Gov. Hogan takes the lead on this issue, and make this policy part of his economic plan, then Maryland’s financial outlook will be bright.