As punitive marijuana laws fall across the country, states are taking different approaches to just how they will lighten the burden on the justice system and the people who choose to partake in pot.
In Maryland, the answer for now is decriminalization.
Lawmakers have given a marijuana decriminalization bill their final approval, sending it to the governor for his signature. The bill eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana possession, and instead prescribes a relatively small fine for the offense.
The state House of Delagates passed the measure by 78 to 55. State Senators approved it 34 to 8. The new law will take effect on October 1, 2014, once the governor adds his signature to the legislation. And, according to a statement posted on his blog, he intends to do just that.
“The General Assembly has decided after much consideration — and with clear majorities in both Chambers — to send to my desk a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I plan to sign it.”
Maryland had the fourth highest rate of marijuana possession arrests per capita in 2010 when compared with other states, according to NORML. Further, marijuana laws here, as elsewhere, were enforced in a racially disparate method, leading to the criminalization of minority men and women at a higher rate than white men and women, despite similar marijuana usage rates.
“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,” said Gov. O’Malley. “I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgement 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. Such an acknowledgment in law might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens.”
Under the new law, if you are caught in possession of ten grams or less of marijuana, you will be faced with a non-criminal fine of $100 for a first offense or $250 for a second offense. It’s a far cry from the 90 days in jail, $500 fine, and criminal record previously faced for marijuana possession.
However, more than 10 grams could warrant criminal charges. And 10 grams is not a lot, much less than allowed in most other decriminalized states. And the police can still charge you with selling drugs based on a wide variety of subjective criteria. But it is a real improvement.
Keep in mind, decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing. While the law is definite progress, it is ultimately not what marijuana advocates are after.