Maryland has moved one step closer to cutting tokers a break.
The state Senate voted 36-8 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The March 14 vote leaves the matter to the Maryland House of Representatives, where the fight for reform may be much tougher.
The House Judiciary Committee started discussing similar legislation a day before the Senate voted, meaning the House bill will either die in committee or move promptly to a full vote on the House floor. Last year, the Judiciary Committee sat on a decriminalization proposal rather than let it come up for a vote.
According to The Washington Post, several committee members showed signs they are likely to oppose decriminalization. That was not the atmosphere in the Senate. There, even some senators who initially wanted to keep pot criminal voted for reform.
If decriminalization takes effect, possession of small amounts would be punishable by a $100 civil fine. There would be no jail time, probation or other criminal penalties. But cultivation and sale of weed would still be crimes under both state and federal law.
The amount of marijuana allowed is unusually low, however: just 10 grams. Most states that have decriminalized impose civil fines on any amount up to about 28 grams.
State Sen. Christopher Shank, a Republican, told the Post he had planned to speak against the bill when the session started. He sent his staff looking for statistics to demonstrate that decriminalization leads to more cannabis use by teenagers.
In fact, the research showed something different, and it slowly changed Shank’s mind: In states that decriminalized and legalized marijuana, teen pot use remained steady or dropped slightly.
Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Democrat, sponsored the bill passed by the Senate.
“Nobody in this room wants an increased use of any drugs,” he said.
Zirkin argued less severe penalties would allow police to focus on patrol work rather than the countless cannabis busts that eat up disproportionate time and resources.
Fifteen states have decriminalized simple possession over the past 40 years, while two others, Colorado and Washington, have gone further and legalized recreational pot for all adults over 21. Another 11 states are considering decriminalization, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
National support for legalization is already polling at well above 50 percent, and a much larger majority favor replacing criminal penalties with civil fines. Still, the idea faces surprisingly strong opposition in many places, including Maryland.
That resistance may be substantial in the House, though it was ultimately weak in the Senate.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican, was the most vocal opponent of the bill. He said it gives teenagers the “wrong message.”
Referring to Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign of the 1980s, Simonaire said, “Probably in a year or so, we will just say, ‘Just do it.’”