Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

John Wagner

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said Monday that he will sign a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

On a 34-to-8 vote, the Senate gave final approval to the legislation Monday afternoon. The bill would impose only civil fines, rather than criminal sanctions, on those caught with less than 10 grams of the drug.

At least 24 other states now have either decriminalized the use of marijuana, approved it for medicinal purposes or legalized it outright, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

“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,” O’Malley said in a statement. “I now think that [it] is an acknowledgment 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.”

Maryland would join several states and jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, that have moved in recent years to legalize or decriminalize the drug.

The House voted Saturday 78 to 55 to approve the measure.

The decriminalization bill followed a tortuous route to passage, having narrowly survived efforts by House Judiciary Committee Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and others to kill it in committee, by appointing a task force to study the issue.

But a group of lawmakers, including the Black Legislative Caucus, argued that the time had come to end this chapter in the war on drugs. Supporters cast the issue as a matter of civil rights, noting data showing that African Americans go to jail at a higher rate for marijuana possession, despite usage levels that are no different from those of whites.

“It’s rare you see that kind of turnaround that fast,” said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the bill’s sponsor.

Zirkin said Vallario deserved some credit for ultimately signing off on the measure and doing so in a politically savvy way. Vallario opposed decriminalization on principle, Zirkin said, but the chairman also felt growing public support for such a measure, particularly in his district.

With decriminalization, violators would receive citations similar to traffic tickets for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana: the person could either pay the fine in full or request a trial date in District Court. Failure to appear would be a misdemeanor under the criminal code. Records of convictions would not be subject to public inspection, the bill says.

As initially passed by the Senate last month, the legislation would have imposed a straight $100 fine on violators — regardless of the number of convictions — and authorized a court to require third-time offenders to enter a drug treatment program.

The final bill that emerged from the House and Senate would have escalating fines for multiple offenses: a second violation would carry a $250 fine, and a third offense would have a $500 fine. A court would be required to order a drug assessment for a third-time offender. In addition, a violator who is younger than 21 years old would have to appear before a court; the initial version in the Senate applied that sanction to people under 18 years old.

Last year, the legislature took a step toward decriminalization by easing penalties for possession of less than 10 grams to $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

O’Malley, who rose to political prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, began this session by pronouncing that he was “not much in favor” of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, as Colorado and Washington state have recently done. He called the drug “a gateway to even more harmful behavior.”

But O’Malley, who is considering a 2016 White House bid, has been more open to more moderate marijuana reforms.

“The General Assembly has decided after much consideration — and with clear majorities in both Chambers -- to send to my desk a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I plan to sign it,” he said in Monday’s statement.