TESTIMONY TO THE SENATE JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS COMMITTEE
SB 658 The Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act
BY: Susan Cochran, President
DATE: February 25, 2014
The League of Women Voters of Maryland supports SB 658 The Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act.
The LWVMD is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. Small groups of LWV members research an issue and then compile a fact sheet that members use to discuss the topic and try to reach a consensus on positions for purposes of action and advocacy. After studying and discussing “Drug and Controlled Substances Abuse, Policies and Laws in Maryland,” the LWVMD agreed to support thelegalization of marijuana for any use, including medicinal uses, subject to restrictions on production and distribution.
In approaching this study, the League looked at the history of federal, as well as Maryland, laws governing the sale and use of controlled substances. The first federal law regulating drug use, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, required manufacturers to list ingredients and warnings on labels, but no prohibitions were imposed. The Narcotics Control Act of 1914 was intended to regulate the sale of opium, heroin, and cocaine by taxation rather than by prohibition. The Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1932 to take over federal enforcement of opiate and cocaine laws. The Bureau encouraged states to adopt laws criminalizing the use of marijuana. By 1937, when 46 states had laws against marijuana, most with the same rigorous penalties as those for morphine, heroin, and cocaine, the federal government outlawed the non-medicinal possession or sale of pot. Despite testimony from the American Medical Association that recognized marijuana as medicine in good standing, products containing marijuana were all dropped from the U.S. Pharmacopeia by 1941.
The modern war on drugs dates to 1970 when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention Act put all drugs except alcohol and tobacco under federal control, and to 1972 when Congress created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to enforce federal drug laws. The Omnibus Drug Act of 1988 created heavier penalties and mandatory sentencing for drug-related felonies.
Maryland’s drug laws parallel federal laws and categorize substances into separate penalty groups based on manufacture, distribution, or possession, and on the amount involved. A Justice Policy Institute study titled “Maryland’s Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws: Their Impact on Incarceration, State Resources, and Communities of Color,” observes that Maryland spends the “lion share of its correctional resources on the incarceration of drug-involved individuals.” Maryland has spent $123 million annually to incarcerate drug offenders. Overall, the study shows that mandatory minimum sentencing has a racially disparate impact and costs the state millions in corrections costs. Where a mandatory minimum sentence is required by law, a judge has no discretion and no power to reduce a sentence. A person serving a state or federal mandatory minimum sentence is not eligible for parole.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, as reported in the Winter 2011 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, drug offenders now account for 20 percent of inmates in federal and state prisons and local jails, which is up from only 6 percent in 1980. A “chronic offender may cost more than $7 million” in the course of a criminal career involving controlled substances. Calling the “war on drugs a dismal failure,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff cited in 2009 figures from Harvard Economist Jeffrey Miron that federal, state, and local governments have spent $44.1 billion annually to enforce drug prohibitions.
In her 2010 book titled The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander provides an in-depth exploration of the institutionalized racism in poverty-stricken inner cities, where selling drugs may be the only “employment” available to survive. According to a survey by the Department of Health and Human Services, there are four times as many white drug users as black users, but blacks represent more than half of those imprisoned on drug charges. Alexander also disparages “absurdly severe” sentencing rates combined with laws that make it legal to discriminate against even nonviolent former felons in hiring, housing, and education, which she characterizes as nothing less than a new racial caste system.
In April 2009, Steven Duke pointed out in The Wall Street Journal that the drug-fueled murders and mayhem in Mexico bring to mind the Prohibition-era killings in Chicago. Duke argued that the only long-term solution is to legalize the drugs we overlooked when we repealed Prohibition in 1933. “What we can do is eliminate the black market for drugs by regulating and taxing them as we do our two most harmful recreational drugs, tobacco and alcohol.” He noted that the entire American demand can be met by growing it at home. If we taxed the marijuana agribusiness at rates similar to those for tobacco and alcohol, we could raise about $10 billion in taxes per year, and save another $10 billion we now spend on law enforcement and incarceration.
The LWVMD urges this Committee to pass SB 658 to tax, regulate, and legalize marijuana.