Martin O’Malley says he will sign a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill would impose civil fines rather than criminal sanctions for carrying less than 10 grams of the drug.
The Maryland Senate approved the legislation Monday on a 38-8 votes. Although it has been a battle to get the legislation on the statute books and on Saturday the House of Delegates passed the bill by just seven votes. Opponents had been insisting that decriminalization would have sent the wrong message about drug use.
The bill also narrowly escaped efforts by House judiciary Committee Joseph F Vallario Jr. (D-Prince’s George’s) and others to kill it in committee.
The balance was swung by a group of lawmakers, including the Black Legislative Caucus, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They argued that studies had shown that African-Americans who use marijuana are twice as likely to be prosecuted for marijuana possession despite usage levels that are no different to whites.
The bill’s sponsor Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) said that Vallario deserved credit for ultimately signing off on the bill as he had opposed decriminalization on principle but realized there was growing public support for the measure.
“It’s rare you see that kind of turnaround that fast,” said Zirkin.
Gov. O’Malley also acknowledged that he had changed his mind on the issue of pot decriminalization.
“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 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,” O’ Malley said in a statement Monday.
The final bill that emerged will see a $100 fine on violators, regardless of any previous convictions. A second and third violation would carry fines of $250 and $500 respectively and if a person is caught for a third time, they will be required to enter a drug rehabilitation program.
Maryland follows 24 other US states that have either decriminalized the possession of marijuana, approved it for medicinal purposes or legalized it outright; Colorado and Washington were the first states to make smoking pot recreationally legal.
O’Malley, who rose to political prominence on a tough-on-crime platform as mayor of Baltimore and is considering a 2016 White House bid, has said thathe was not initially in favor of going down the path of Colorado or Washington believing that the drug was “a gateway to even more harmful behavior.”
But he says he has become persuaded of moderate reforms on marijuana and that is why he will sign the bill.