Was Maryland Right to Decriminalize Pot?

The legislature voted Tuesday to impose civil fines for possessing small amounts of the drug.

Closeup of a Marijuana plant

Maryland votes to relax restrictions on pot.

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Maryland lawmakers voted Monday to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The state Senate, which finished work on the bill late Monday night, voted 34 to eight to impose civil fines on those possessing 10 grams or less of pot. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley has already indicated he will sign the bill into law, making Maryland the 18th state to loosen laws on recreational pot use.

Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, backs the efforts to decriminalize the drug in his state. “I support the action taken in the state legislature,” Van Hollen said at a press breakfast on Tuesday. “It’s wrong to have so many people behind bars for the use of marijuana. You already have, as Eric Holder has pointed out repeatedly, too many nonviolent offenders in prison in this country.”

Law enforcement in Maryland pushed back on the legislation, arguing that looser marijuana laws could have damaging and unforeseen consequences. "You can rest assured, if [marijuana is] legalized in the state of Maryland, there will be ... a black market for those Mexican cartel members, who now dominate the industry here in the United States,” Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month. “We will never stop the Mexican cartel. We would do nothing but open up the floodgates if it’s legalized in the state of Maryland.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on pot legalization.]

Lt. Tom Woodward of the Maryland State Police also noted that less punitive pot laws could mean greater risks to drivers, even though drugged driving would remain illegal. "How many people are going to get injured or killed ... because we can’t effectively deal with the increased presence of marijuana on our roadways?” Woodward said.

Under the bill, a first-time offender would pay a $100 fine, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third. A court-ordered drug assessment would also be required for any third time offenders. Maryland has already taken steps toward decriminalization, loosening punishment last year to a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail for possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana.

Last month, the District of Columbia City Council approved similar legislation to decriminalize pot. Possession of less than an ounce, or 28 grams, of pot is now punishable by a $25 fine in the district. D.C. Mayor Vince Gray signed the bill, which now faces a 60-day review in Congress before becoming law.

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