A Telling Moment for Martin O’Malley — and His Presidential Ambitions?

That the Maryland governor will sign off on a state marijuana decriminalization bill speaks volumes about his national viability.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
April 7, 2014, 1:44 p.m.

Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley will sign a bill de­crim­in­al­iz­ing the pos­ses­sion of small amounts of marijuana as ex­pec­ted, his of­fice an­nounced late Monday. The le­gis­la­tion, which would im­pose civil fines rather than crim­in­al sanc­tions on any­one caught with less than half an ounce of the stuff, was ap­proved by the state Sen­ate in the fi­nal hours of its 90-day ses­sion.

The move comes after the gov­ernor faced con­sid­er­able pres­sure, both loc­ally and na­tion­ally, to re­form state marijuana le­gis­la­tion.

It’s a telling mo­ment for O’Mal­ley, who’s been tour­ing the coun­try and talk­ing up the pos­sib­il­ity of a 2016 pres­id­en­tial run. It also sig­nals a broad­er shift to­ward more lib­er­al marijuana policies.

Long be­fore he was elec­ted gov­ernor, O’Mal­ley be­came may­or of Bal­timore run­ning on a tough-on-crime plat­form. But in the past year, he has shif­ted away from that im­age, craft­ing one bill that es­tab­lished the state’s med­ic­al-marijuana pro­gram (al­beit a flawed one) and an­oth­er giv­ing law en­force­ment dis­cre­tion as to wheth­er to ar­rest someone for marijuana pos­ses­sion or simply is­sue a cita­tion.

In a state­ment re­leased around 5 p.m. Monday, O’Mal­ley ac­know­ledged his evol­u­tion. His full re­marks, which down­play the move — mak­ing the le­gis­la­tion sound like a mere form­al­ity — are be­low.

With more ef­fect­ive poli­cing and more widely avail­able drug treat­ment, to­geth­er in Mary­land, we have driv­en vi­ol­ent crime down to its low­est levels in 30 years. This pro­gress has been hard-won and much re­mains to be done. Re­cent spikes in hom­icides and heroin over­dose deaths un­der­score the life-sav­ing ur­gency of the work be­fore us.

The Gen­er­al As­sembly has de­cided after much con­sid­er­a­tion — and with clear ma­jor­it­ies in both Cham­bers — to send to my desk a bill that would de­crim­in­al­ize the pos­ses­sion of small amounts of marijuana, and I plan to sign it.

As a mat­ter of ju­di­cial eco­nomy and pro­sec­utori­al dis­cre­tion, few if any de­fend­ants go to pris­on for a first or even a second of­fense of marijuana pos­ses­sion in Mary­land. De­su­et­ude is of­ten a pre­curs­or of re­form.

As a young pro­sec­utor, I once thought that de­crim­in­al­iz­ing the pos­ses­sion of marijuana might un­der­mine the Pub­lic Will ne­ces­sary to com­bat drug vi­ol­ence and im­prove pub­lic safety. I now think that de­crim­in­al­iz­ing pos­ses­sion of marijuana is an ac­know­ledge­ment of the low pri­or­ity that our courts, our pro­sec­utors, our po­lice, and the vast ma­jor­ity of cit­izens already at­tach to this trans­gres­sion of pub­lic or­der and pub­lic health. Such an ac­know­ledg­ment in law might even lead to a great­er fo­cus on far more ser­i­ous threats to pub­lic safety and the lives of our cit­izens.

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