The Marijuana Policy Project has set up shop to legalize pot in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Just underneath the same progressive arc that saw the DREAM Act and same-sex marriage become a reality in Maryland, you may find a seedling just beginning to poke through the frozen ground: legalizing marijuana.

"I think once people get used to the idea and hear it, it is not going to be as big a hurdle to jump over as you might have thought at one time,” said Del. Curt Anderson.

Anderson, a Baltimore city Democrat, has had his eye on the legalization of marijuana since the 2012 legislative session.

For two years in a row Anderson submitted bills that never really got anywhere, but this year against the backdrop of precedent the bill looks and feels different.

"It's an industry and it will be brand new and virtually anybody could get in on the ground floor,” Anderson said.

And Anderson he argues, why not Maryland?

Colorado is now cashing in, soon Washington State and industries in both those areas called the delegate to see if Maryland may be the next state.

Anderson estimates at least a $120 million profit for the state is to be gathered in licensing fees, a $50 tax per ounce and fines if not used per the regulatory structure; no one under 21, certainly not in public and don't think of driving after smoking it.

It is a bill that now looks a whole lot like the law in Colorado.

"This is a radical idea supposedly, but when you start to really look into it and you see the fact that marijuana certainly is not as dangerous as drug as alcohol and it doesn't kill you like cigarettes, then people start thinking why is this drug illegal,” Anderson said. 

The money and control his bill gives to the state comptroller kicks it over to not just the Judicial Proceedings Committee, but Ways and Means to which Anderson argues can be an easier avenue for passage, but the benefits don't just lie in a revenue generator.

Anderson is most concerned about eliminating criminal records for young men and women in Baltimore for what he believes amounts to nothing more than a nuisance crime.

He says his bill generates revenue and saves money for the justice system all at once, a no-brainer he believes in a state like Maryland.

"You look at it on paper and say ‘Well, you know the Ravens should beat the Bengals on paper, but you got to play the game," Anderson said.

And that game is obviously playing out in Annapolis and Anderson is putting together his team including the NAACP, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters among others, but it is the presence of one group helping pull it all together.

Rachelle Yeung is with the Marijuana Policy Project, the lobby which successfully spent millions on campaigning for legalization in Colorado and now setting up shop in Maryland.

It was partly its poll released a few months back that found 53 percent of Marylanders are in favor of legalization; dig deeper and you see 37 percent of those were between ages of 50 to 64 and the lion share of respondents were from the densely populated and politically important Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

Yeung is taking that message to legislators in Annapolis, pushing an issue in a state her organization feels is ready.

"We think that this is becoming more politically palatable topic,” Yeung said. “The other reason is that Maryland is so close to the capitol and we think that if Maryland can take this step, it will help influence lawmakers in DC see that this is where the nation is going.” 

Coloring a very blue Maryland green would be a win for the Marijuana Policy Project.

In previous campaigns the Marijuana Policy Project pumped money into ballot measures.  Maryland is the first time the organization is working the halls of state legislature to get a bill passed.

This process, organizers admit, isn’t as easy as a media blitz and involves chasing down delegates and senators in Annapolis to win votes one confrontation and short conversation at a time.

ABC2 News shadowed Yeung on a typical day in February when she had the following exchange with Sen.  James Brochin, a Baltimore County democrat:

Yeung: “What I would like to talk to you about is legalization for adults 21 and up under a system similar to alcohol," Yeung said as she caught up with Brochin on his way to committee.

Brochin: “I think that taking 20,000 addicts a year and locking them up in Baltimore City because they possess marijuana is bad public policy. So I am with you on that, but I also think smoking marijuana can be a gateway drug…I don't want Maryland to be Colorado or Washington State…I'm not there."

Brochin isn't the only one who thinks that way in Annapolis. While many lawmakers find value in decriminalizing marijuana, regulating and legalizing it is still too radical of an idea, fueling the belief among lawmakers that the Marijuana Policy Project is biting off more than it can chew by going straight for legalization.

It is a line of thinking MPP knows will be tough to move in an election year, but one it feels it has the public support and increasing sponsors to eventually cross.

A view also shared

by Anderson.

“[Opposing lawmakers] are involved in the status quo,” Anderson said.  “What this bill does is change the status quo in favor both sociologically and economically in the state of Maryland and if they get to the point where they can see that, then they will be on our side as well.”

The Marijuana Policy Project is working in other states this year as well as Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Alaska are all considering similar measures.

The lobby is pushing the same message there as they are here: job creation, state revenue and regulation that would squash the black market.

While there is growing support here in Maryland with Senate President Mike Miller recently throwing his weight behind the issue, Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he is not in favor if legalization.

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