Holding cocaine bricks such as these would still be a criminal offense under a Maryland bill to relax penalties for low-level possession. (Janine Costa/Reuters)

Maryland lawmakers heard conflicting testimony Tuesday on whether the state would benefit from eliminating criminal penalties for low-level narcotics possession, with some witnesses claiming the change would encourage more drug use, while others said it would put addicts where they belong — in treatment.

The discussion occurred during the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on a bill that would decriminalize low-level possession of seven common drugs: Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, MDMA, LSD, methadone and amphetamine. Under the legislation, holding small amounts of those controlled substances would result in a civil fine of up to $500, although distributing narcotics would still be a criminal offense.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the legislation, acknowledged that his proposal would sound radical to many people at first. But he said the state needs to focus on treatment rather than imprisonment. He called the nation’s so-called war on drugs “madness,” saying it has led to mass incarceration, higher levels of addiction and deaths from gang violence.

Sara N. Love, public-policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, testified on behalf of Morhaim’s bill.

“We believe this is a good first step into shifting drug policy to where it belongs -- in the health-care arena,” she said.

Law-enforcement officials testified against the measure, saying it would do little to reduce addiction or diminish the drug trade.

Maryland State Police Lt. Andy Johnson, who worked much of his career in undercover narcotics operations and drug interdiction, said the bill would have a negative impact.

“We’ve identified these drugs as controlled dangerous substances for a reason — they’re dangerous substances,” he said. “The dangers associated with decriminalization is that it gives the green light to the younger generation to begin using, which ultimately leads to a higher rate of addiction.”

Morhaim, an emergency-room physician who said he regularly treats overdose patients, has also proposed legislation that would require hospitals to make addiction counselors available at all times and develop plans for transferring drug users to appropriate detoxification and rehabilitation centers.

His decriminalization measure defines low-level possession as up to 10 grams of marijuana; 10 pills of MDMA; 2 grams of cocaine; 1 gram of heroin, amphetamine, or methadone; and 0.0015 grams of LSD.