Candidates Game for Decriminalization

(Photo David Stuck)

(Photo David Stuck)

Maryland gubernatorial candidates have voiced their support for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced House Bill 879, which would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine not exceeding $100. Individuals under 21 caught with marijuana would be required to take drug education classes.

Fellow Democratic candidates Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Douglas Gansler have both voiced their support for decriminalizing marijuana, but neither responded to Mizeur’s invitation to testify in Annapolis in support of the bill.

“Attorney General Gansler supports working with law enforcement to decriminalize possession of marijuana in small amounts,” Gansler spokeswoman Katie Hill said via email. “He believes any discussion of complete legalization should include Maryland’s health professionals, law enforcement and community organizations.”

Brown wrote Mizeur a letter that cited racial disparities in Maryland marijuana possession arrest rates and the economic toll on law enforcement. In 2010, African-Americans were almost three times more likely to be arrested for possession than Caucasians, he wrote. Four years ago, Brown’s letter said, Maryland spent $55.3 million in police costs to enforce the current law.

“Decriminalization isn’t about encouraging drug use; it’s about putting our resources in the places where they’ll do the most good,” wrote Brown. “It’s about helping young people who are caught with small amounts of marijuana find a better way forward instead of putting them through the revolving door of our justice system.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Vaeth, a former Baltimore City firefighter, also supports decriminalization. The house bill’s co-sponsors include attorney general candidates Delegates Aisha Braveboy, Bill Frick and Jon Cardin, Gansler’s running mate, Delegate Jolene Ivey, and Delegate Dan Morhaim, a physician and longtime medical marijuana proponent.

“This session, we have an opportunity to change policies that have ruined lives, made our communities less safe and wasted valuable law enforcement resources,” Mizeur’s wrote in her letter to Brown and Gansler.

The bill mirrors legislation Sen. Bobby Zirkin introduced last year, which passed the Senate but did not pass the House. SB 364, which Zirkin and Sen. Allan Kittleman introduced this session, will come up for a hearing on Feb. 25. It would make possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine and would allow judges to order juveniles caught with small amounts to perform community service or attend drug treatment and drug education classes.

“This is not some radical proposition,” stated Zirkin. “This is something that has been done in many states across the country.”

He said it’s not surprising that gubernatorial candidates support decriminalization, since potential problems such as increased drug use, the gateway drug effect and driving under the influence have not increased in states that have gone the decriminalized route.

“With every bill you look at the positives and negatives,” said Zirkin. “The negatives just don’t exist.”

Some of those watching the race for governor don’t think the decriminalization debate will play much of a role.

“I don’t think voters are paying attention to the General Assembly in terms of the gubernatorial race,” said political columnist Laslo Boyd, managing partner at Mellenbrook Policy Advisors. He added that he didn’t think the legislation would pass.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who said he wouldn’t support legalization, is “not much in favor” of decriminalizing marijuana, he said on the Marc Steiner radio show.

“We’ll continue to watch implementation of new laws in Colorado and Washington along with the impact of those laws on public health and safety,” O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said via email. “We’ll also await further guidance from the federal government on enforcement.”

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