A day after more than a 100 people packed a Maryland State House committee room to share their views on legalizing marijuana, advocates for easing prohibitions on the drug said they feel momentum building in their favor.
“The floodgates for change are open now,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who has sponsored a bill that would legalize marijuana and impose taxes and regulations on its distribution and use. “We have essentially vilified and criminalized our own people for doing something that our last three or four presidents have admitted to doing. That is a theme I heard yesterday.”
But Raskin also cautioned that while he thinks there is a real possibility that the legislature might agree to reduce the criminal penalties for marijuana use, the chance of legalizing marijuana remains more remote.
Lawmakers have sponsored bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would rewrite nearly a century of laws and policies outlawing marijuana. Some want to address problems in the medical-marijuana bill that was passed last year so that patients and doctors can more easily access the drug. Others seek to decriminalize marijuana by treating possession of small amounts as something like a traffic ticket. Others, such as Raskin, would prefer to legalize marijuana, classifying it in the same way as alcohol.
On Tuesday, dozens of Marylanders joined the debate, often with highly emotional testimony that drew on their own experiences with the drug.
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College students, parents, police officers and others packed the Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing while others waited in the lobby, wearing green ribbons or cannabis leaf insignias as a show of support for Raskin’s bill.
Many were supportive of legalization, and even more backed a measure — sponsored by Sens. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) — that would impose a noncriminal fine of up to $100 for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.
Several of those who testified admitted to having tried marijuana, though often also noting that they didn’t find it to their liking. Some told of how an arrest for having a small amounts of pot had initiated a lifelong ordeal. Others appealed to libertarian sentiments.
Gregory Reina, 59, identified himself as a “taxpaying homeowner” who had been married 33 years, raised two sons and now, as a retiree, stayed active refereeing youth sports. He covered a host of reasons for why marijuana should at least be decriminalized, including his experience with a substance that he believes is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.
“[Yet] if I wanted to get marijuana, I was terrified I may be shot and robbed. Eighty percent of the homicides in Baltimore city are drug-related,” Reina said. He also scoffed at the notion that marijuana is a gateway to abuse of more dangerous drugs. That’s only because it’s illegal, he said: “After all, customers buying wine for dinner are not offered heroin.”
Others argued that it was time to end a policy that brings the weight of the justice system down hardest on minorities.
Some of the strongest pushback came from law enforcement officers, including David Morris, the police chief in Riverdale Park. He told the panel that decriminalizing marijuana would send the wrong message to young people.
Annapolis Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop went awry, however, in citing an online news article that said 37 people in Colorado had died due to overdosing on marijuana on the day that state legalized the drug. The article was a hoax published by a satirical Web site — which Raskin pointed out to an embarrassed Pristoop in the middle of his testimony.
Late Tuesday, the chief apologized for the mistake.
“I believed the information I obtained was accurate, but I now know the story is nothing more than an urban legend,” Pristoop said in a statement. “This does not take away from the other facts presented in opposition to legalization or the good work of the Maryland Chiefs and Maryland Sheriffs associations.”
The state Senate passed a decriminalization bill last year that died in the House Judiciary Committee, which also became the burial ground for a House bill like Raskin’s.
But marijuana advocates hope that this year will be different, especially because Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has set up a working group to find a way forward on marijuana legislation.
Busch has said, however, that Maryland would be wise to assess the implementation of new legalization laws in Colorado and Washington state before attempting to follow their lead.