mjbriefing1

Del. Curt Anderson speaks at a press conference on marijuana taxation and regulation. Rep. Jonathan Singer of Colorado (far right) testified before the General Assembly about his state’s experience with marijuana legalization, along with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes (not pictured). (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Maryland lawmakers heard testimony on the taxation and regulation of marijuana from state and city officials representing Colorado and Washington, two states that have legalized marijuana. Legalization, the officials said, has not resulted in increased risks to public safety, but there remain challenges, particularly where financing is concerned, in establishing an effective legal market for the drug.

The testimony was presented last Friday by Colorado State House Representative Jonathan Singer, who sponsored and worked to place Colorado’s legalization measure before voters for a 2013 referendum, and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who put an end to prosecutions for marijuana possession after taking office in 2010 and sponsored Washington state’s ballot initiative to legalize the substance.

“We need to treat marijuana like the drug that it is, not the drug some fear it to be,” said Singer at a Maryland American Civil Liberties Union organized press conference held before his testimony. “That means you regulate it, that means you tax it, that means you watch where it’s going, and in Colorado, it’s working.”

Singer said Colorado has succeeded in developing a system for keeping the marijuana trade out of the hands of criminals, and that teen use of marijuana, traffic fatalities due to marijuana, and crime as a whole have all either stayed stagnant or dropped since the legalization measure passed. “The concerns about the sky falling haven’t born themselves out,” said Singer.

Also speaking at the press conference, Holmes said that when he first took office, he dismissed all pending marijuana possession cases in Seattle. “In a city with a seven percent African-American population, 59 percent of the pending marijuana possession cases were against African Americans, and it’s an example that I think has replicated across the country,” Holmes said. He added that crime has continued to decrease in Seattle despite legalization.

The disparate impact of marijuana arrests on communities of color has certainly been replicated in Baltimore, said state delegate Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City). “In 2013, in Baltimore City, there were 6500 total arrests for marijuana. Of the 6,500, 5,400 were African Americans,” Anderson said. He continued, saying Maryland’s recent decriminalization has failed to have its intended effects as police agencies have been slow to act.

“So we’re working harder to try to get a taxation and regulation of marijuana, in place,” said Anderson, sponsor of the House version of the marijuana taxation and regulation bill currently under consideration in the General Assembly.

The measures which legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington have come under some criticism for excluding many people of color who are ineligible to become distributors due to past marijuana convictions. Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County), sponsor of the senate version of the marijuana taxation and regulation effort in Maryland, said Maryland’s bill addresses this problem. “In the current legislation that we’re working on, we . . . have minority business protection, and we also have a statement that conviction for only a non-violent marijuana possession offense in the past is not a bar to participating in the new industry,” said Raskin.

According to Sara Love, public policy director Maryland ACLU, the legislators who heard Singer and Holmes’s testimonies posed questions on how legalization works in practice, with a particular emphasis on concerns about teen use and impaired driving, rather than on whether marijuana should be legalized. “This is happening already. People are already on our roads impaired. Teens say it is easier to buy marijuana than it is to buy beer. When you look at the regulated system, they’re able to address these things,” said Love, who added licensed distributors are more likely to work to keep the drug out of the hands of teenagers for fear of losing their license.

Singer said that while Colorado has had a good experience so far, finding banks willing to make business loans to entrepreneurs has proved challenging since selling marijuana is still a crime under federal law. “Those are still outlaying issues that we need to resolve, but the net-product has been positive so far,” said Singer.

ralejandro@afro.com