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Martin O’Malley Connects With Pro-Marijuana Activists

DENVER — When Colorado voters cast their ballots in November 2012, a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana won by a larger margin than President Obama achieved in winning the state. Since then, it has become one of the hottest political and social issues in this swing state, becoming a new source of jobs and millions in tax dollars, but bringing along with it worries about stoned drivers and teenagers’ abusing the drug.

So when Martin O’Malley, the Democratic presidential hopeful and former Maryland governor, swung through Colorado on Thursday, he sat down for a marijuana round table to discuss Colorado’s experiment with legalization. How did Colorado keep it from flowing into other states? Was the use among teenagers rising? How many tax dollars was the state collecting? How many scofflaw marijuana businesses had the state shut down?

“You didn’t see everyone showing up three hours late for work every morning?” he asked, joking.

Mr. O’Malley spoke to marijuana activists and state regulators in the offices of a marijuana-focused law firm just south of the state Capitol. He sat beneath a black-and-white photograph of a marquee declaring “Yes on 64,” shorthand for the constitutional amendment that legalized marijuana sales and use by adults 21 and over.

Those in the cannabis industry talked about the challenges of running all-cash businesses. Government officials described how they had created regulations for a brand-new market. Several people mentioned the exploding popularity of edible marijuana. (“Like Maureen Dowd,” Mr. O’Malley said, referring to the New York Times columnist’s magical mystery tour with a pot-infused chocolate.) A young veteran described how marijuana had helped him and other vets overcome dangerous dependencies on opioid painkillers.

As governor, Mr. O’Malley signed laws decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and setting up a medical-marijuana program (more than 20 states now have some form of medical marijuana). He said he supported removing marijuana from the federal government’s roster of Schedule I controlled substances, a federal classification that puts it in the same category as heroin, and rescheduling it as a drug that has some medical use but also a high potential for abuse. He did not endorse outright legalization.

Martin O’Malley, the Democratic presidential hopeful and former Maryland governor, sat down for a marijuana round table in Denver to discuss Colorado’s experiment with legalization.

Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley talks marijuana in 2016 campaign

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In a visit to Denver, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley said he is looking to Colorado as he considers whether to support federal legalization of marijuana. But for now, he said, it’s a step too far.

“I think we still have to watch, and we have to learn in Colorado and Washington state,” he told reporters after a meeting with marijuana industry and legalization advocates Thursday. “I’m not there yet, but I am watching very closely what’s happening.”

The focus on the issue is emerging as a hot topic in the 2016 presidential campaign amid questions about how the federal government should respond to the increasing number of states moving toward legalization.

The former Maryland governor’s discussion came the day after Republican presidential candidates sparred about marijuana in a televised debate and three months after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul visited Denver for a fundraiser with the legal weed industry.

In Maryland, O’Malley signed a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a civil citation and fine for those caught with less than 10 grams. He also supported the state’s legalization of medical marijuana.

In the meeting, he asked a dozen or so questions about how it works in Colorado and the results after legalization in 2013.

If elected president, O’Malley said he would use his executive authority to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, a move that will allow doctors to issue prescriptions and enable medical research. Right now, marijuana is a Schedule I drug at the federal level, akin to heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Brian Vicente, an attorney who helped lead the campaign to legalize weed in Colorado, wanted the candidate to go further.

“It’s a positive sign that you have a mainstream candidate discussing this issue in Colorado,” said Vicente, who hosted the event at his downtown law office. But, he added, the schedule change is a “largely symbolic” step.

Others at the meeting included members of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, pot business owners and other legalization advocates.

Gina Carbone, the co-founder of Smart Colorado, a group that warns against the commercialization of marijuana and advocates for greater protections for children, suggested the candidate received a one-sided view that ignored the negative effects.

“The marijuana industry is trying to sell this idea that marijuana use is great and there are no problems,” she said in an interview. “I definitely think he didn’t get the whole picture.”

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