- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The Annapolis police chief cited a news story about marijuana overdose deaths in Colorado when he testified Tuesday against legalizing the drug, not realizing the story was a hoax.

Chief Michael Pristoop was arguing against two marijuana bills before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee: one that would legalize the drug and another that would reduce the penalty to a $100 fine. He mentioned an article about 37 overdose deaths the day marijuana became legal in Colorado.

After Pristoop finished, Sen. Jamie Raskin, who is sponsoring the legalization bill, said with a faint grin that he had to “spoil the party.” Reading from his laptop, Raskin said the story was a fabrication from a satirical newspaper and the Comedy Central website.

Laughter erupted from the audience, which included many people wearing marijuana hats and stickers.

The Annapolis Police Department later issued a news release, acknowledging the story was indeed an “urban myth.”

This exchange characterized the atmosphere in Tuesday’s hearing. Police arguing against the bills met a tough, skeptical audience in the senators.

Last year the committee approved a version of Sen. Robert Zirkin’s bill to make marijuana possession a civil offense and reduce the penalty.

In the version Zirkin introduced this year, juveniles charged with marijuana possession would go through the same process as underage drinkers, so their sentences would often involve treatment.

Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said 16 states already have similar laws. New York’s took effect in 1977. He said studies overwhelmingly show this change doesn’t drive up marijuana use rates.

“As a matter of fact, it had no discernible effect whatsoever,” Zirkin said.

Zirkin said he supports the legalization bill but doesn’t think it could pass. Gov. Martin O’Malley has expressed opposition.

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, spoke after Zirkin. He said he doesn’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana and doesn’t want his three kids to do so either. But he said the drug war is destroying people’s futures without good reason. Offenders can get criminal records that block them from educational opportunities.

“We’ve really turned it into a war against our own people,” he said.

Sara Love, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said this state has one of the country’s highest rates of marijuana arrests.

After two hours of testimony supporting the bills, several police chiefs took the stand to oppose them. They said legalizing marijuana or reducing it to a civil offense would send a poor message to kids and interfere with law enforcement.

Sen. Christopher Shank told one chief the argument about sending the wrong message was a “nonstarter,” and he urged the chief to find a compromise - that is, a version of a decriminalization bill that wouldn’t hinder their daily operations.

“To me it seems like we have to find some sort of middle path there,” Shank said. He said it’s clear the drug war isn’t seriously diminishing the supply of marijuana or the demand for it.

Raskin asked what kind of message it sends to arrest and prosecute black marijuana users at far higher rates than white users, which research has shown both the state and the nation do.

However, not all members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee expressed support for the bills. Several remained quiet through most of the hearing, and Sen. James Brochin said he worries that making marijuana culturally acceptable will drive up rates of use.

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