ANNAPOLIS – Maryland is one step closer to decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana this legislative session, but a series of hurdles remain.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Friday voted 8 to 3 in favor of a measure that would shift possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one punishable by a $100 fine.

The change would free up time and resources of law enforcement officials, allowing them to focus on more serious, violent crimes, according to supporters like Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who sponsors the bill.

“Just walk into the District Court any day of the week and you’ll see rows of police officers sitting there,” Zirkin said. “It’s just a huge waste money.”

But many of the committee members who spoke in support of the measure  focused on the effect it would have on helping young people avoid a criminal record that could limit job and education opportunities.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, the committee chairman, said the bill will stop people from being jailed for conduct that is “widespread” and, in many ways, less dangerous than alcohol.

Committee members who raised concerns about the bill during the voting
session expressed worry over the potential negative impacts. Few remarks were made in ardent opposition to the idea of decriminalization.

Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore, who said he was “torn” on the issue of marijuana, voted in favor of the decriminalization measure, as did Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, who said his opinion has changed since he voted against a similar measure last year.

Brochin cited testimony from last month’s hearing by people who had dealt with marijuana-related charges and said he struggled with the fact that possessing a small amount of marijuana could become a “life ruiner”.

“This is like reigning in the police a little bit and saying, ‘You know what, it’s just a simple citation. You can give all the lectures you want, and they probably deserve a lecture, but at the end of the day you’re not invoking terror on these kids.’”

However, Sen. Norman Stone, Jr., D-Baltimore County, argued that marijuana is often a gateway drug that leads to more harmful behavior. Critics of decriminalization say that it would promote a dangerous message.

The Washington, D.C., Council voted earlier this week to decriminalize marijuana, joining 16 states that have similar laws.

The bill that passed the Maryland Senate committee is more conservative than the District measure, which makes possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine.

Zirkin told committee members that the amount of marijuana his proposal would decriminalize is smaller than what is covered in any other decriminalization law in the country, and pointed out that states like Mississippi and North Carolina, considered more conservative, have moved to decriminalize small amounts of the drug.

A similar decriminalization bill died in Maryland’s House last year after passing through the Senate.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, is also sponsoring a decriminalization bill, scheduled for a hearing next week, while Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, is pushing to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. Raskin’s bill is awaiting a vote by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.


Megan Brockett

Capital News Service