By EMILIE EASTMAN
Capital News Service
If the nation’s largest marijuana lobbying organization has its way, Maryland will legalize marijuana by 2017.
The Marijuana Policy Project announced this week that Maryland and nine other states will be targets of a renewed push for marijuana policy reform.
That means legislation like the decriminalization bill introduced by state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, may have a better chance of making progress in the next General Assembly session.
Zirkin’s bill failed to come to a vote in the House this spring but he plans to re-introduce the bill next year, and may even go a step further and propose legislation that would put the decision in voters’ hands by referendum, he said.
“What I’m proposing is not some radical proposition,” Zirkin said. “It’s been done in a variety of states all across the country. The results have been studied. It’s not a hard argument.”
Zirkin’s decriminalization bill would have changed marijuana possession of less than 10 grams from a criminal to a civil offense. Instead of facing up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, perpetrators would pay a maximum $100 fine. It was supported by a 30-16 bipartisan vote in the Maryland Senate.
Zirkin said he met with representatives from the Marijuana Policy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland earlier this week to discuss plans for moving forward.
“We’re very interested in supporting this bill,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project
Over the next few years, Marylanders can expect increased public conversation about the topic as analysts from the organization testify in hearings, recruit witnesses and submit written testimony, she said. A portion of the $2 million to $5 million in donations the group receives every year could be designated for education and publicity initiatives in Maryland, O’Keefe said.
Maryland is one of 12 states that considered marijuana decriminalization or legalization bills this year, O’Keefe said. The biggest push for new legislation is happening in New England and in the western United States, with particular appeal among younger voters, she said.
In May, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill that authorized teaching hospitals and research centers in Maryland to distribute medical marijuana. The state also recently reduced penalties for marijuana possession under 10 grams and authorized “medical necessity” as legal defense for marijuana use. But while these changes constitute a small step forward, the impact may not be widely felt, said O’Keefe.
“Maryland has taken wary steps for medical marijuana,” she said. “There are tiny programs and barely any patients qualify.”
If Zirkin’s bill passes next year, Maryland will be the 18th state to institute an alternative to incarceration for marijuana possession. Incarceration and enforcement of marijuana prohibition cost the state millions of dollars each year, according to a new report by the ACLU. In 2010, Maryland spent more than $160 million enforcing and litigating its marijuana possession policies, the report said. The state also had one of the highest per-capita marijuana possession arrest rates, with approximately half a million arrests in 2010, according to the ACLU.
But gaining support from the House may prove a challenge.
“I suspect the House Judiciary Committee will have to work long and hard to come up with an appropriate and intelligent bill,” said Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery.
Simmons said that while he is in favor of lessening penalties for marijuana possession and instituting fines instead of incarceration, he is concerned that Zirkin’s bill makes no distinction between children and adult marijuana users.
“[The bill] treated 9-year-olds the same as people who are 90,” he said. “I thought it was a terrible deficit. What I will be insisting on for my vote is that it addresses these issues.”
Other members, such as House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s, have made it clear they will fight Zirkin’s legislation. A meeting on Monday between Zirkin and Vallario did not result in a compromise, Zirkin said.
“I didn’t come from the meeting optimistic that the chairman would support any movement on this issue,” he said.
Vallario could not be reached for comment.
A common concern among opponents of more relaxed marijuana policies is that bills like Zirkin’s could cause an increase in marijuana and other drug use.
Marina Williams, 20, said she smokes regularly and said the law has little bearing on the amount marijuana she buys or consumes.
A Maryland resident for 17 years, Williams recently moved to New York City where possession of under 25 grams is a violation and not a criminal offense. Williams said she makes multiple trips to Maryland every year, but that neither state’s legislation has an effect on her habits or choices. Williams said she purchases about a gram at a time and “likes to have it on hand.” She said she has never been fined or arrested for possession.
Williams said she doesn’t believe marijuana policies short of legalization have an effect on average residents.
“I highly doubt that people who don’t [smoke] would be like ‘oh I can smoke now that its decriminalized’,” she said.
But as national attention on legalization and decriminalization efforts increases, Zirkin hopes the momentum will help carry his bill through the legislature, he said. Endorsements from public figures like CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and the U.S. Department of Justice’s landmark decision to honor state laws regarding recreational and medical marijuana use may also have an impact.
“Recently you’ve seen an avalanche of national folks discussing this,” Zirkin said. “The federal government coming out and saying they’re going to respect the laws of the individual states…that’s a major change.”