- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Maryland Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, taking an action that mirrors those in a growing number of states relaxing their laws against the drug.

Senators voted 30-16 in favor of the bill, which would lower the penalty for possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana to a maximum $100 fine rather than the current maximum $500 fine and 90 days in jail.

The bill faces a less-certain fate in the House, but it is being championed by lawmakers who argue the state is wasting time by prosecuting thousands of residents who are caught with small amounts of marijuana but pose no real threat to society that would warrant imprisonment.

“It is a waste of resources, it is a waste of judicial time and, quite frankly, it is a waste of police officers who have to be there every time we have these individuals in court,” bill sponsor Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, Baltimore County Democrat, said this week.

Sixteen states currently have decriminalized marijuana possession in some form, ranging from many states that issue only civil fines for small amounts to Colorado and Washington, which legalized recreational use last year.

The proposal in Maryland — which is co-sponsored by Mr. Zirkin and Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard Republican — would not go as far as the decriminalization laws in most of those states.

Mr. Zirkin said the proposed 10-gram maximum is much more restrictive than decriminalization laws in states such as Nebraska, which imposes up to a $300 fine for possession of one ounce — about 28 grams — of marijuana, and Mississippi, where a person possessing as much as 30 grams faces no more than a $250 fine.

The proposal would be Maryland’s second bill in as many years to relax penalties for less than 10 grams of marijuana, which bill sponsors describe as enough for two joints.

Last year, the assembly passed a bill that softened the penalty to a maximum 90 days and $100 fine from the former maximum of one year in jail and $1,000 fine — which now applies only for 10 grams to 50 pounds of marijuana.

Critics say last year’s bill did nothing to decrease the number of marijuana cases in courts and that this year’s legislation will improve in that area.

Opponents of the bill argue that its more-relaxed attitude toward drugs sets a bad precedent, and that such action on the state level could eventually run afoul of federal laws banning marijuana usage.

“As a father of two children, I’m very concerned with any lessening of the law and how it affects kids,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, as reported by WBAL-AM radio.

Mr. Busch said he does not expect the House to approve the bill, or a long-shot proposal that would legalize possession by adults 21 or older.

He did say he is open to supporting a House bill that would allow some academic medical centers to begin prescribing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

That bill has wide bipartisan sponsorship from 59 of the 141 members of the House.

Proponents of Mr. Zirkin’s bill say that it will free up resources in the legal system and also will prove helpful to prospective medicinal users.

The assembly passed a bill in 2011 that allows defendants using marijuana medicinally to use a documented illness as a defense in court, but some lawmakers say many are still scared to use the substance out of fear of arrest.

“I think it’s really important to people who have family members that might have cancer to be able to do this,” said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican who voted in favor of this year’s legislation.

The bill will now be considered by the House Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to send it to the House floor.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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