Where Martin O’Malley’s Liberalism Ends

The Democrat is under pressure on marijuana reform and what he does next will speak loads.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
March 18, 2014, 12:24 p.m.

His stance on gay mar­riage, gun con­trol, and the tax code is pat­ently pro­gress­ive, but there’s one area where Mar­tin O’Mal­ley’s lib­er­al la­bel doesn’t fit.

The Mary­land Sen­ate on Fri­day voted to de­crim­in­al­ize marijuana, and the bill, if it passes the House of Del­eg­ates, will head to the gov­ernor’s desk for a sig­na­ture. Its pas­sage could put O’Mal­ley, who built a name for him­self as the “tough on crime” may­or of Bal­timore in the early 2000s, in a strange po­s­i­tion not just vis-a-vis his state, but na­tion­ally.

The gov­ernor is tour­ing the coun­try and talk­ing up the pos­sib­il­ity of a pres­id­en­tial run in 2016, even as he has con­tin­ued to voice his firm op­pos­i­tion to marijuana re­form, an is­sue that’s been gain­ing trac­tion in Mary­land and bey­ond.

O’Mal­ley’s would be run­ning from the left of the Demo­crat­ic party, but his re­cord on drug re­form hasn’t been in tune with that. What’s more, polling shows there’s very lim­ited space for a lib­er­al al­tern­at­ive to Hil­lary Clin­ton: Only 10 per­cent of Demo­crats say they would want someone more lib­er­al than Clin­ton, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent CNN/ORC In­ter­na­tion­al Poll. Even anti-Obama can­did­ate Bri­an Sch­weitzer’s drug policies are more in tune with lib­er­al youth.

All three of the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates seek­ing to re­place O’Mal­ley as gov­ernor are vy­ing to out-marijuana-re­form one an­oth­er. And Demo­crat­ic primary voters around the coun­try over­whelm­ingly sup­port not just med­ic­al marijuana and de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion meas­ures, but out­right leg­al­iz­a­tion.

There’s some evid­ence his stance on the is­sue is evolving. In May of 2011 O’Mal­ley signed a bill al­low­ing ser­i­ously ill pa­tients to avoid pro­sec­u­tion when charged with pos­ses­sion of med­ic­al marijuana and set­ting up a com­mis­sion to study how med­ic­al marijuana laws might be im­ple­men­ted in Mary­land in the fu­ture. In 2012 there was a step away from re­form when a spokes­wo­man said he would veto a bill on med­ic­al marijuana. But then in 2013 his ad­min­is­tra­tion again signaled it would be will­ing to back a med­ic­al marijuana bill that met cer­tain con­tin­gen­cies, such as the “flex­ib­il­ity” to sus­pend the pro­gram should the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in­ter­vene with the dis­tri­bu­tion of what it still con­siders an il­leg­al drug. (O’Mal­ley had signed a pre­lim­in­alry med­ic­al marijuana bill in 2013 that al­lows dis­tri­bu­tion from a hand­ful of “aca­dem­ic med­ic­al cen­ters,” but none have been will­ing to par­ti­cip­ate thus­far).

The bill that passed Fri­day in Mary­land’s Sen­ate, which would re­duce the fine for car­ry­ing an ounce of weed from $500 to $100 and elim­in­ate jail time, is fairly mod­est in its re­forms. Can O’Mal­ley pos­sibly veto this sort of bill and go on to be taken ser­i­ously as a na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic con­tender for pres­id­ent?

Back in 2008, Barack Obama found a way around the is­sue by sug­gest­ing that the ques­tion of leg­al­iz­a­tion be left to the states. That an­swer was good enough then, but it was a life­time ago where drug policy is con­cerned. A dodge on marijuana re­form is un­likely to be ac­cept­able now, when 20 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia have leg­al­ized the drug for med­ic­al pur­poses, two states have op­ted for full-scale leg­al­iz­a­tion, and polling shows Demo­crat­ic voters are un­equi­voc­ally not on O’Mal­ley’s side of this is­sue any­more. “It’s def­in­itely something he’ll be asked about,” Marijuana Ma­jor­ity spokes­man Tom An­gell said, “par­tic­u­larly by young voters on the 2016 cam­paign trail, should he throw his hat in the ring.”

O’Mal­ley just spoke at the Cali­for­nia Demo­crat­ic Party’s state con­ven­tion, where med­ic­al marijuana has long been leg­al and del­eg­ates even made leg­al­iz­ing marijuana part of the party plat­form. In May, he’s slated to be key­note speak­er at a Demo­crat­ic Party awards re­cep­tion in Mas­sachu­setts, where voters passed a de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion bal­lot meas­ure in 2008 by a 2-to-1 mar­gin and over­whelm­ingly ap­proved a med­ic­al marijuana bill in 2012.

The de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion bill headed to O’Mal­ley’s desk isn’t his only prob­lem. On Monday the Mary­land House of Del­eg­ates passed a med­ic­al-marijuana bill 127 to 9.

If O’Mal­ley thinks op­pos­ing in­cre­ment­al marijuana re­forms is a way to ex­cite young, lib­er­al voters in a pres­id­en­tial con­test, he hasn’t been read­ing the tea leaves. Or the polling. What he de­cides to do if and when that de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion bill comes to his desk will say a lot about his na­tion­al vi­ab­il­ity.

This post has been up­dated for clar­ity.

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