Almost a quarter-century ago, Kurt Schmoke, then-mayor of Baltimore, gave some rather remarkable testimony before a congressional committee. In a nutshell, he said that a 75-year effort to control the flow of illicit drugs had not only failed but had actually increased crime. And, to boot, it did not prevent addiction.
Now, 24 years later, that War on Drugs is approaching the century mark, but with the same failed results. Just look south of the border to the power of the drug cartels or to the streets of Baltimore or even to tony suburbs. Schmoke noted the untold billions that the war was costing — in violence, imprisonment, etc.
Now jump ahead to last week’s elections and the headline-grabbing votes in Washington state and Colorado to legalize the sale of marijuana for recreational use. Under the measures approved by the voters, the two states are required to set up a system to license, regulate and tax the drug sales.
Much drama still surrounds implementation of the laws, however. Marijuana sales, of course, violate federal law. The reaction of the U.S. Department of Justice remains to be seen.
Still, with passage of the two state laws and a law making Massachusetts the 18th state to legalize medicinal marijuana, the issue of illicit drugs is very much on the public radar.
In 2003, Maryland passed a limited medical marijuana law that was amended in 2011. It allows for an “affirmative defense” by which users who have a doctor’s certificate stating that marijuana was recommended for medical reasons can argue against prosecution for possession of marijuana and its paraphernalia. Among the health benefits ascribed to medical marijuana are pain relief, increased appetite, decreased nausea and muscle relaxation.
In the 2012 legislative session, a work group, established the year before to study ways of allowing a fuller medical marijuana program, drafted legislation that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration and Joshua Sharfstein, the governor’s health secretary, spoke out against. They feared that federal prosecutors might seek to arrest state employees who implemented the legislation. Sharfstein has supported a proposal for academic centers to run medical marijuana programs as long as there is strong oversight.
In general, the debate over marijuana policy and use seems to be escalating to a whole different level. In 2011, a Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included such heavyweights as Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, issued recommendations that included encouraging governments to experiment with “models of legal regulation of drugs (with cannabis, for example) that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
And just this week tea party conservative Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told Politico that he favors eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession.
Last year, Schmoke, now the dean of the Howard University School of Law, and Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, a physician, penned a piece in The Huffington Post that called for a national discussion on the efficacy of the War on Drugs, with participation by law enforcement, medical professionals, addicts, politicians, etc. The goal was to develop a drug control strategy “based on science and not on politics.”
As the state refines its policy on medical marijuana and given recent developments elsewhere, a comprehensive discussion of this type is needed at the state level as well, leading to fewer restrictions on the sale of marijuana for bona fide medical needs.