Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign a bill Wednesday relaxing the penalty facing people caught with a small amount of marijuana, a law that supporters say will help streamline prosecution of misdemeanor possession cases.
The legislation would decrease the penalty for defendants found with less than 10 grams of marijuana, cutting the current maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine down to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The bill, which passed the General Assembly last month, also would require cases involving less than 10 grams of marijuana — or about one-third of an ounce — to be decided by a judge rather than a jury, eliminating delays and costs often associated with jury trials.
"It's much simpler, it's much cleaner and we can get people into treatment faster," said Sen. Jamin B. "Jamie" Raskin, the bill's sponsor. "We should be trying to get people into drug treatment rather than having their cases drag on for a year or two."
Mr. Raskin, Montgomery Democrat, said the state's current marijuana-possession laws are needlessly complicated. Actual sentences rarely, if ever, come close to the maximum penalties — resulting in months and years spent on cases that often end with a sentence of a few days of jail time.
In 2010, nearly 24,000 people were arrested in Maryland for marijuana possession, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Many cases resulted in guilty pleas rather than jury trials.
"We're adjusting the law to mirror actual practices," Mr. Raskin said. "Anything that we can do to bring more reason and balance into our drug laws will reduce costs in the criminal justice system and prisons and will benefit everybody."
Whileactual sentences are not particularly harsh, Mr. Raskin said Maryland's longtime law is one of the tougher ones in the nation and more severe than many in neighboring states.
The state's maximum $1,000 fine is identical to those in New Jersey, West Virginia and the District, but most other nearby states threaten no more than six months in jail.
In Virginia, first-time possession of 14 grams or less is punishable by just 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, although repeat offenders face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
In the District, possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The Maryland bill had support from state prosecutors and easily passed both chambers — 41-5 in the Senate and 92-31 in the House.
The Senate initially wanted to relax the penalty for possession of up to 14 grams while the House pushed for just seven grams. The chambers settled on 10 grams as a compromise.
The legislation was criticized by lawmakers who worried that relaxing the law sets a bad precedent and trivializes the dangers of marijuana.
Delegate Susan K. McComas, Harford Republican, said she thinks the new law could lead drug users or dealers to possess marijuana in smaller quantities simply to avoid more-severe penalties for possessing larger amounts.
"I've had clients where marijuana has been a gateway drug and they've gotten into worse things," said Ms. McComas, a lawyer. "Every time we do something, in the street they figure out how to get around it."
The new law is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.
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