Marylanders pack state Senate committee hearing to debate measures to legalize pot

Dozens of Marylanders joined an impassioned debate about legalizing marijuana on Tuesday with testimony that often drew on their own experiences with the drug.

College students, parents, police officers and others packed a Maryland state Senate committee hearing room, awaiting their turn to speak about bills that would allow marijuana to be bought, sold, regulated and taxed like alcohol, or at least reduce the penalties to something like a traffic ticket for possession of small amounts.

Others waited outside the room, wearing green ribbons or cannabis leaf insignias as a show of support.

More than a few told the Maryland General Assembly’s Judicial Proceedings committee that the penalties for using marijuana were far more harsh than any health effects. Some argued that it was time to end a policy that brings the weight of the justice system down harder on minorities than others. Still others expressed the belief that the time had come to ease criminal prohibitions against pot — but said they felt wary about moving too fast toward full legalization.

There were witnesses who admitted to having tried marijuana, though often with the stipulation that they didn’t find the drug to their liking. Several said they resented the state deciding what they could or could not ingest. And several told of how an arrest for having a small amounts of pot had initiated a lifelong ordeal.

Andrea Miller, interim executive director of the Progressive Democrats of America, said her son’s job prospects had been derailed since his arrest for possession of three-tenths of an ounce of marijuana in 2009.

“The impact is, he is unemployed,” Miller told the panel. “He gets a lot of interviews. But the moment they do the background check, it’s all over.”

David Cosner, 24, a history major at Morgan State University, said he is still paying for an arrest that happened about four years ago.

“I still remember the shame of being stripped to my underwear. I still remember the shame of being put in shackles,” Cosner said. He said he was jailed for 22 hours, spent $2,000 on his legal case and ended up with a criminal record that will never entirely go away. But as a white man, he said, he believes the situation is even worse for people of color.

“It also saddens me that the city in which I live, Baltimore, arrests black citizens five times more often than white citizens for the same crime — and that that crime doesn’t have a victim,” Cosner said. “It is vital that we refocus our energy in making our streets safer and not imprisoning drug users.”

The bill that would legalize marijuana and tax and regulate its distribution and use is sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery). A separate bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), would impose a civil fine of $100 for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

A Washington Post poll this month found that nearly half of all Marylanders support legalization. Forty-three percent are opposed.

Neil Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said Americans still have not applied the lessons of Prohibition — the experiment in banning alcohol by constitutional amendment — to the issue of whether marijuana should be legal.

“Understand this is a failed policy. It didn’t work back in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition. And it will not work today,” said Franklin, a former member of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Departments.

Outlawing alcohol, and outlawing marijuana, he said, both contributed to the creation of a powerful criminal underground that supplied a drug that people wanted to use despite its illegality. He said the futility of the war on marijuana came home to him 14 years ago, after the murder of Maryland State Trooper Edward M. Toately during an undercover operation in the District.

“This is the reason I stopped for a moment to take a different look at what was going on with the war on drugs,” Franklin said.

Nancy Rosen-Cohen, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addictions, urged the panel to decriminalize marijuana but stopped short of backing legalization. She said those who do abuse drugs are ill served by being locked up.

Criminal records impede people’s ability to find housing and work and hinder their recoveries, Rosen-Cohen said. The money saved by redirecting law enforcement efforts could be used to combat drug addiction through prevention and treatment, she added.

Advocates for at least decriminalizing marijuana appeared to outnumber opponents of both measures, such as Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris. Morris told the panel that decriminalizing marijuana would send the wrong message to young people. He also warned of a likely increase in the rate of people driving while under the influence of marijuana.

“My concern is for the unintended consequences of decriminalization,” Morris said.

The chief produced some laughs when he admitted he was looking forward to having a beer when he got home after testifying (“I’ll probably drink a Coors Light when I get home tonight, thank you very much”), but he also stirred up the audience with his belief that marijuana was much worse than alcohol.

“But there’s only one reason to smoke marijuana — and that’s to get high,” Morris said, as pro-legalization members of the audience groaned.

Raskin, who sits on the committee, pressed the chief on the differences between marijuana and alcohol. “I don’t smoke marijuana,” Raskin said. “But it seems like both of them are mind-altering substances, isn’t that correct?”

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