Mid-Atlantic Legislators Weigh Pot Liberalization

March 20, 2013 in Top News, U.S. News

Maryland State Police Posturing with Bales of MarijuanaBISHOPVILLE, Md. ─ Following the introduction of a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in Maine, Delegate Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore) has filed legislation in Maryland that would end his state’s prohibition on marijuana and regulate its possession, use, and sale for adults over the age of 21.

House Bill 1453 would create a system to regulate and tax cannabis in a manner similar to how the state handles alcohol. It would instruct the Maryland comptroller to license marijuana retail stores, wholesale facilities and testing facilities and apply an excise tax of $50 per ounce on wholesale sales. The excise tax revenue would go to fund treatment programs to prevent alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to sign a bill Wednesday relaxing the penalty facing people caught with a small amount of marijuana ─ a law that supporters say will help streamline prosecution of misdemeanor possession cases. The legislation would decrease the penalty for defendants found with less than 10 grams of marijuana. It would cut the current maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine down to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The bill, which passed the Assembly last month, also would require cases involving less than 10 grams of marijuana, or about one-third of an ounce, to be decided by a judge rather than a jury. This would eliminate delays and costs often associated with jury trials.

“It’s much simpler, it’s much cleaner and we can get people into treatment faster,” said Senator Jamin Raskin, the bill’s sponsor. “We should be trying to get people into drug treatment rather than having their cases drag on for a year or two.”

Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the state’s current marijuana-possession laws are needlessly complicated. Actual sentences rarely if ever come close to the maximum penalties,  resulting in months and years spent on cases that often end with a sentence of a few days of jail time.

In 2010, nearly 24,000 people were arrested in Maryland for marijuana possession, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Many cases resulted in guilty pleas rather than jury trials.

“We’re adjusting the law to mirror actual practices,”  Raskin said. “Anything that we can do to bring more reason and balance into our drug laws will reduce costs in the criminal justice system and prisons and will benefit everybody.”

While actual sentences are not particularly harsh, Maryland’s longtime law is one of the tougher ones in the nation and more severe than many in neighboring states. The state’s maximum $1,000 fine is identical to those in New Jersey, West Virginia and the District, but most other nearby states threaten no more than six months in jail. In Virginia, first-time possession of 14 grams or less is punishable by just 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, although repeat offenders face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

In the District of Columbia, possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The Maryland bill had support from state prosecutors and easily passed both chambers, 41 to 5 in the Senate and 92 to 31 in the House. The Senate initially wanted to relax the penalty for possession of up to 14 grams while the House pushed for just seven grams. The chambers settled on 10 grams as a compromise. The legislation was criticized by lawmakers who worried that relaxing the law sets a bad precedent and trivializes the dangers of marijuana. The new law is scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1.