- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Friday approved a measure relegating marijuana possession to a civil offense.

Three of the 11 Senators voted against the measure. Sen. Christopher Shank, D-Washington, who voted against it last year, said he was uncertain at the start of a meeting Friday. At the end of a 30-minute discussion, he held his nose and voted “yes.”

The committee has not voted on Sen. Jamie Raskin’s proposal to eliminate all penalties for possessing marijuana in small amounts, as Colorado and Washington have done.

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During Friday’s discussion, the bill’s advocates shot down every argument raised by Senators who felt ambivalent.

The bill would likely save money on litigation costs, and Shank wants to amend the bill to divert some of this money toward public health programs.

“I’m sorry, folks, it still is a public health issue,” Shank said.

The Maryland Addiction Directors Counsel has requested an amendment that would let judges order defendants to enroll in treatment programs, Shank said.

“I think there are some things that this bill still needs,” Shank said. “I hope we’re not going to declare victory and walk away.”

Raskin, D-Montgomery, said decriminalization is a necessary first step. The U.S. couldn’t treat alcohol consumption as a public health matter until it decriminalized drinking in 1933, he said.

Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, said he’s represented heroin addicts as a lawyer. All of them started with marijuana, he said.

Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, replied that the “gateway drug” argument isn’t persuasive. Those people almost certainly drank alcohol before using heroin, and most were probably inclined by personality to experiment with drugs, he said.

Police sometimes use the smell of marijuana as a pretext for stopping drivers and searching their vehicles, and sometimes they find weapons and huge amounts of drugs. Police chiefs have objected that this bill would deprive them of that tool. They can’t stop people for possessing legal substances.

Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who introduced the bill, noted that possessing more than 10 ounces would remain a crime- meaning it would remain a valid pretext for traffic stops. He said the other states that treat marijuana possession as a civil offense haven’t encountered this problem.

Raskin said that concern shouldn’t stand in the committee’s way.

“That’s a terrible reason to favor the continued criminalization of marijuana - because it gives us a way to get into people’s private spaces,” he said.

Raskin said that Zirkin’s bill doesn’t go far enough; he wants the state government to regulate marijuana sales instead of leaving them to the black market.

Since Colorado and Washington have legalized the drug, officials in both states have said they anticipate more than $100 million annually in extra tax revenue.

Zirkin said he agrees but doubts Raskin’s bill could succeed.

Parallel bills are pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

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