This week President Obama added fuel to the volatile national debate over the legalization of marijuana use.

“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” the president said during a wide-ranging interview on various subjects with New Yorker editor David Remnick.

President Obama’s comments will likely be invoked during the 2014 Maryland General Assembly, which is considering bills in the House and the Senate that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Maryland.

The Marijuana Control Act of 2014 would make the personal use, possession and limited home cultivation of marijuana legal for adults 21 and older. The legislation, which closely mirrors the law in Colorado that made recreational use legal on Jan. 1 there, would also set up a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed like alcohol.

Colorado, the first state to implement the law, racked up about $5 million in retail sales in the week it was legal to buy pot for recreational use. Washington state is expected to open marijuana dispensaries later this year.

“When someone wants to purchase and use marijuana in Colorado, they get in their car, drive to one of the about 40 licensed retail marijuana stores that are open right now, show their ID to prove they’re over 21 and they walk up to a counter where there’s different strains of marijuana in little glass jars,” said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.

“What we want to do in Maryland, similarly to what we’ve done in Colorado, is take that existing underground market and place it behind business counters, place it in the hands of licensed regulated business people,” Yeung added.

The House bill is sponsored by Baltimore City Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore City) and Del. Sheila Hixson (D-Montgomery County) and in the Senate by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County).

“We need to understand that arresting people for marijuana use can have devastating consequences for people’s ability to get jobs, housing, and education,” Anderson said recently. “Those unnecessary and misguided consequences are being concentrated in communities of color, because even though marijuana use rates are the same, Black Marylanders are disproportionately arrested for it.”

Although the legislation has wide support among Democrats, three of the state’s most prominent Democrats have come out against legalization of recreational use.

“I don’t think it serves anybody’s purpose to clog up the system with this type of offense, but I’m not going to be waving the Schmoke flag of legalization,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said last week, invoking the name of the city’s first elected Black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, who endorsed the decriminalization of drugs during testimony before Congress in 1988.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has announced his opposition to legalization of recreational marijuana, as has Speaker of the House Michael Busch. Senate President Mike Miller said he supports legalizing and taxing marijuana like Colorado and Washington state.

Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor