January 23rd, 2014 - 12:23 pm

Legalize It? General Assembly Debating New Marijuana Laws

Photo: NPR

As the marijuana legalization debate grows across the country, Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Howard County Sen. Alan Kittleman introduced legislation Wednesday that would decriminalize small amounts of pot in Maryland. Pointing to broadening public support for such measures, it’s worth noting that while Zirkin is a Democrat—the party viewed as more liberal on such social issues—Kittleman is a Republican running for county executive.

Senate Bill 364, if passed and signed into law, would reduce the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal to a civil offense, authorizing police officers only to issue citations for possession under specified circumstances. Last year, a similar measure sponsored by Zirkin and Kittleman passed Maryland's Senate by a vote of 30-16, but failed to win support in the House of Delegates.

Earlier this month, Sen. Jamie Raskin, Del. Curt Anderson, and Del. Sheila Hixson announced the formation of the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland and support for the outright legalization of marijuana. Their proposal, The Marijuana Control Act of 2014, "would make the personal use, possession, and limited home-growing of marijuana legal for adults 21 years of age and older; establish a system in which marijuana is regulated and taxed similarly to alcohol; and allow for the cultivation, processing, and sale of industrial hemp."

However, the passage of marijuana decriminalization—or a step further—the legalization of marijuana, and subsequent regulation and taxation, is very unlikely this year. 

Gov. Martin O'Malley, in the final year of his second term, is on record opposing marijuana legalization in the manner of Colorado and Washington state. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, currently campaigning for governor, has only gone so far as to say he would consider decriminalization and/or legalization proposals if they enable law enforcement officials to focus on more serious crimes. A spokesman for Attorney General Douglas Gansler, also running for governor, said Gansler doesn't consider legalization "appropriate." Last year, O'Malley signed legislation making Maryland the 19th to state to allow marijuana for medical purposes.

Still, the tide appears to have turned. Earlier this year, powerful Senate president Mike Miller said he now supports the legalization of marijuana—and Miller's support is crucial to getting anything accomplished in the General Assembly.

This fall, a Goucher College poll found that 51 percent of Marylanders support marijuana legalization and 40 percent oppose such a measure. Also, Del. Heather Mizeur, a candidate for governor, has publicly stated her support for legalization.

And, this week President Obama weighed in and said he didn't believe pot was more dangerous than alcohol.

On the other hand, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said last week she doesn't support full legalization while City Council President Jack Young said he supports decriminalization because of the negative impact arrests have on employment opportunities for young people.

Finally, House Speaker Michael Busch told the Washington Post that he thinks Maryland should wait to see how things pan out in Colorado before acting. Which is probably what will happen, if for no other reason then the passage of any decriminalization or legalization law will ultimately likely rest on who wins the race to replace O'Malley in the governor's mansion.


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