By SARAH TINCHER
ANNAPOLIS (March 14, 2014)—After a 22-minute debate Friday, the Maryland Senate passed a bill to decriminalize recreational use and possession of small amounts of marijuana in the state with a bipartisan vote of 36 to 8.
If passed by the House and signed into law, the legislation would reclassify the possession or use of less than 10 grams of marijuana as a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. It is currently a criminal offense punishable to no more than 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. Convicted juveniles and, in accordance with an amendment proposed by Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, adults convicted for a third or subsequent time could also be mandated in court to attend drug treatment or education programs.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, told lawmakers Friday that the 18 states that have already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana have seen "no discernable effect."
"When [the other states] moved from a criminal to a civil statute, there has been no increase in drugged driving, no increase in marijuana usage, no increase in the so-called 'gateway effect,'" Zirkin said. Opponents have previously argued that marijuana can be a 'gateway' to more dangerous drugs.
Shank, who sponsored another amendment that would direct revenue from citations to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to combat drug abuse, also testified in favor of the bill. He did, however, acknowledge that he is opposed to the drug's legalization.
"The war on drugs ... is not working in the state of Maryland. It is not working in the United States. We are spending incredible resources with our judiciary with our law enforcement, and the rate of drug use is not going down," he said.
Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, cast one of the eight votes against the legislation.
"I think it sends the wrong message to our children. There's quite a buzz in our high schools about this bill.
And what I'm hearing is that it's just like a speeding ticket: They don't want a speeding ticket, but if they get it, they just move on," Simonaire said.
"Two years ago, I believe we had a 'Just Say No' policy to drugs, which many parents agree with. Now, under this, I think it's more like, 'Just Say a Little' - like 10 grams - and then, at this rate in a year or so, we would just say, 'Just Do It,'" Simonaire said.
The Senate also passed a decriminalization last year by a margin of 30-16, but it died in a House committee.
Another bill, which would decriminalize the possession of a slightly larger amount of marijuana, was debated Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee. The sponsor, Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, who is running for governor, proposes decriminalizing one ounce of marijuana - which is approximately 28 grams. The committee has not yet taken further action.
Proposals to legalize and tax marijuana in Maryland are also pending in House and Senate committees.