Light one up for baby steps: Smoking dope in Maryland is no longer a crime.

State lawmakers gave final approval April 7 to a bill to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of weed. The legislation now goes to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who said he would sign it.

“As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety,” O’Malley said. “I now think that [it] is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health.”

Maryland is now one of 16 states that have decriminalized pot. Another two, Colorado and Washington, have gone a step further and legalized marijuana altogether. And a total of 21 states allow medical cannabis.maryland flag

All told, 29 states either have legal weed, medicinal weed, decriminalized weed, or two of the three. That means half the country has now adopted some degree of marijuana reform, 77 years after the Marihuana Tax Act first outlawed the drug.

The bill passed in April decriminalizes possession of less than 10 grams of weed. Now the maximum penalty is 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The legislation replaces that with a $100 fine for first-time offenders.

The amount increases to $250 on a second offense and $500 on a third offense. Three-time offenders would be required to undergo drug-abuse assessments, while underage violators would be called before a court.

Citations will be handled like traffic tickets. Violators could choose to pay a fine or go to court, but a missed court date would lead to a misdemeanor charge. Records of marijuana citations would remain private.

Unfortunately, the new law covers a relatively small amount of weed. Most states that have decriminalized apply a cutoff level roughly equivalent to a common sale weight. One ounce is the amount most often used by these states.

But Maryland uses 10 grams, the same amount applied in the current possession statute. It’s an odd cutoff level: Most people in the United States buy marijuana in certain increments, starting at a gram or two, moving to an eighth of an ounce, then a quarter, then a half and finally an ounce.

This means the state’s system forces users to buy in smaller amounts and increases the odds they’ll face misdemeanor possession charges and jail time when they buy too much. That would largely defeat the purpose of decriminalization.

green marijuana plantThe bill passed the state House of Representatives 78 to 55 April 5, then passed the Senate by a vote of 34 to 8 two days later. It survived several close attempts by its opponents to kill it.

It passed largely because the lawmakers who supported it, especially the state’s Black Legislative Caucus, were able to focus much of the debate on civil rights issues. A wide disparity exists across the country between how police treat white users and black users, but it’s especially bad in Maryland.

According to the ACLU, between 2001 and 2010, Maryland arrested black tokers at twice the rate it arrested white tokers – even though both races use pot at the same rate.

The picture that data painted allowed decriminalization supporters to counter attempts by their opponents to kill the bill in committee.

“It’s rare you see that kind of turnaround that fast,” state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, who sponsored the legislation, said of its survival.


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