The Maryland GOP on Pot: Free State Republicans have been warming to marijuana reform, but support for legalization so far remains a pipe dream

City Paper

While 2014 was a watershed year in the annals of liberalizing Maryland’s pot laws, ringing in decriminalization and revamped medical-marijuana laws, 2003 was a big one, too.

That’s when then-governor Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, signed into law a bill meant to protect medical-marijuana users from serious criminal penalties for possession. Ehrlich wholeheartedly supported the measure, even though only 35 percent of his party’s legislators gave it the thumbs up, according to voting records. When the med-pot laws were reformed last year, though, the Maryland GOP’s evolution on the issue was shown to be a sea change: 75 percent of them voted for it.

"They’ve come a long way since 2000, when I first sponsored the medical-marijuana bill," says Donald Murphy, a former Republican state delegate who represented parts of Baltimore and Howard counties from 1995 to 2003 and now works as a federal-policies analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national group looking to liberalize pot laws.

The nation’s views on pot have shifted significantly too since Murphy first proposed medical-marijuana liberalization in Maryland. In 2000, according to long-term polling by Gallup, 64 percent opposed legalizing marijuana use, 31 percent supported it, and 5 percent had no opinion. In 2014, it was 51 percent to 47 percent in favor, with 2 percent having no opinion. The Pew Research Center, meanwhile, found support for legalization jumped quickly this decade, from 41 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2014. Legalization is popular in Maryland–a majority support it, according to the Goucher Poll, which also found that Marylanders think tobacco, alcohol, and sugar pose more serious health risks than pot.

These changes pose a conundrum for Republicans, who "tend to be conflicted between their desire for small government and their support for law and order," explains Murphy. "But they are beginning to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a failure, a significant waste of resources, and more and more have to face the hypocrisy of their own prior drug use. There are few who will take the lead in drug-policy reform, but just as few who support the status quo."

Among conservatives looking for ways the GOP can gain a toehold on the winning side of culture wars, marijuana is a hot topic–so hot that activists are looking to make it an issue that can help separate the wheat from the chaff in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, according to Brookings Institution fellow John Hudak’s analysis of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., which drew about 3,000 attendees. When polled on the question of legalization, 41 percent of CPACers said they support it, while another 21 percent said they want it legally available for medical purposes only. Marijuana policy "made its way into speeches and Q&A sessions not as a tongue-in-cheek, light moment," Hudak wrote, "but as one of many serious policies of interest to the CPAC crowd."

The shifting conservative landscape on pot laws is significant to Maryland because, for this year and the next three years (and possibly the next seven), any pot-liberalizing bills the Democrat-controlled legislature may pass–legalization being the Holy Grail–will need the signature of new Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose upset victory last fall in this heavily Democratic state wowed the nation. In 2018, presumably he’ll run for re-election with all the benefits of incumbency. While Hogan’s position on weed appears unequivocal–"I'm opposed to full legalization of marijuana," he wrote in the Sun’s Voter Guide last fall–he’s left himself some wiggle room by sounding alarm bells about how prohibition is enforced: It "seems unjust," he wrote, to imprison people "for a very small amount of marijuana, destroying their chances of employment, and exposing them to violent offenders."

A majority of Republicans in the Maryland Senate, meanwhile, have shown themselves to have open minds on the pot issue. Seven of 12 GOP senators voted for decriminalization last year. While this surely had little bearing on the GOP’s gains in last fall’s elections–two seats were picked up in the Senate, and seven in the House–this pro-decriminalization crowd is moving up in the world of Republican politics in Maryland.

Only two of the seven pro-decriminalization GOP senators remain in the Senate, but of those who left, two are county executives–Allan Kittleman of Howard County and Barry Glassman of Harford County–and two joined the Hogan administration: David Brinkley is the secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, and Christopher Shank is the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. Of the GOP’s two pro-decriminalization senators still sitting, one–J.B. Jennings (District 7, Harford and Cecil)–is the chamber’s minority leader and has announced he’ll run for U.S. Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District), should Harris run to take the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

On the House side, on the other hand, almost all Republicans were loathe to support decriminalization last year. Only three of the 43 GOP delegates voted for it: Michael Smigiel (District 36, Caroline, Cecil, Kent, and Queen Anne’s), Robert Costa (District 33B, Anne Arundel), and Herb McMillan (District 30, Anne Arundel). Costa retired, McMillan is now chief deputy minority whip, and Smigiel lost a close race in last year’s primary–but recently announced he’s back in the game, planning to run in 2016 against Harris, in part because of Harris’ much-publicized, unsuccessful effort last year to derail Washington, D.C.’s pot-legalization law.

Thus, among this year’s roster of 64 GOP senators and delegates, only three who voted for decriminalization–Jennings, McMillan, and Sen. Edward Reilly (District 33, Anne Arundel)–still sit in the legislature. But voting in the recently ended General Assembly session shows that room still remains in the Maryland GOP’s tent for pot liberalization-and it’s coming in part from newly elected legislators.

A bill to decriminalize the possession of marijuana paraphernalia passed this session, and while only one Republican voted in favor of the Senate version–Justin Ready (District 5, Carroll)–among House GOP members it fared surprisingly well. Seven voted for it: Carl Anderton (District 38B, Wicomico), Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C, Wicomico and Worcester), Robert Flanagan (District 9B, Howard), Robin Grammer (District 6, Baltimore County), McMillan, Christian Miele (District 8, Baltimore County), and Chris West (District 42B, Baltimore County). In a sign that last fall’s elections may be prompting a slight shift in House Republicans’ heretofore rigid anti-pot mindset, five of them–Anderton, Carozza, Grammer, Miele, and West–are newly elected.

West voted to decriminalize pot paraphernalia because, he says, "so long as someone can’t be put in jail for possessing marijuana itself, it makes no sense to have laws on the books" that make possessing pot-smoking paraphernalia like rolling papers or a pipe a criminal offense. However, he stresses, "I’m against totally legalizing marijuana until at least two things happen." First, he says he would need to be shown that marijuana "does not permanently damage your brain." Second, he continues, "there needs to be a way to deal with people driving under the influence of marijuana," since there’s "no way" right now to determine whether a driver is high without "drawing blood," and, "I don’t think people would permit state troopers to pull out a syringe and take their blood, or be detained for hours so a they can prepare a warrant for a doctor to draw blood."

Hogan and Shank declined to offer insights into their current views of the changing marijuana-law landscape. Asked to comment on the findings of City Paper’s analysis of how GOP legislators’ voting patterns on pot-reform measures have been changing, and how lifting prohibition fits in with conservative values, both demurred through their communications directors. Hogan’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, confirmed that Hogan’s campaign position on the issue–that he’s anti-legalization but concerned about the social costs of penalties for possessing small amounts—remains unchanged. Both Montgomery's and Shank’s communications manager, Patty Mochel, said the men would be happy to discuss the issue once Hogan decides whether or not he’ll sign the pot-paraphernalia bill.

Among GOP legislators, meanwhile, legalization appears to remain anathema. Typical sentiments are those voiced by state Del. Kathy Afzali (District 4, Frederick and Carroll), who’s on the record as "adamantly opposed to the legalization of any drugs," and Ready, who’s stated that "while I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments in favor of decriminalization, if we legalize it, we say to children and young adults that it’s OK to smoke marijuana." But some have left room to shift their stances. Grammer told the Dundalk Eagle that he’s opposed to legalization, though he’s "not going to commit without seeing a bill." Newly elected state Del. Haven Shoemaker (District 5, Carroll), meanwhile, told the Carroll County Times last fall that "I oppose marijuana legalization at this time until we have had a chance to see the effects of legalization in states like Colorado."

Murphy of the MPP, when told of Shoemaker’s statement, remarked that "if you can talk about this in red-meat conservative Carroll County, then you can talk about it anywhere." Still, Murphy does not see legalization coming to Maryland any time soon. He says that the newly minted decriminalization law and the just-reformed med-pot laws in Maryland "slow the process down," because legislators want to "watch and see what happens" as the fresh changes are rolled out, just as they want to "see what happens with legalization in other states."

"I understand the delay on this," Murphy says of Maryland’s currently cool reception to the prospect of legalization. "It took us 15 years to get to medical marijuana, so I don’t expect that recreational will happen overnight," he says, "but it’s more a matter of when than if. Legislators are getting in the way of the people on this, and it’s only a matter of time before they wise up. I suspect they’ve wised up already but are afraid to act on it, and Colorado gives them an excuse to wait."

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