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
Add to Briefcase
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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