Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said he would sign a bill passed Monday to decriminalize marijuana. The bill will impose civil rather than criminal penalties for adult possession of less than ten grams of pot.
Maryland will be at least the 18th state to decriminalize the drug — in addition to the District of Columbia — and at least the 25th to have passed decriminalization, a medical marijuana law, or full legalization, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. A number of other cities have also passed their own decriminalization measures.
The bill’s success comes on the heels of a decriminalization measure in neighboring Washington, D.C. In both jurisdictions, the racial disparity of marijuana arrests played a major role in deliberations. Nationwide, blacks are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to an ACLU analysis.
In Maryland, the Black Legislative Caucus strongly backed the measure. But opposition to the bill came from some law enforcement figures, one of whom cited a fake story about marijuana to claim that decriminalization would be dangerous during legislative testimony. “The first day of legalization, that’s when Colorado experienced 37 deaths that day from overdose on marijuana,” Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop said in his testimony. He appeared to be citing a satirical news outlet and later apologized. Pristoop later said, “I think that no one’s overdosing on beer. But marijuana they’re seeing a significant problem with overdosing.” In reality, there has never been a known fatal overdose of marijuana.
Decriminalization measures roll back criminal penalties for minor possession — regardless of whether it is for medical or recreational purposes — and instead punish violators with escalating fines ranging from $100 to $500. But they do not regulate sale or distribution of pot — a component viewed as key to driving out the black market by legalization proponents. Maryland’s bill decriminalizes possession of 10 grams — about a third of the amount exempted from criminal penalties in many other states that permit up to an ounce. The legislature was also weighing proposals to legalize marijuana, but those bills never made it out of committee.
In committing to sign the measure, Gov. O’Malley said, “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. I now think that [it] is an acknowledgment 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.”