Prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs gathered Tuesday in Annapolis to push back against the growing movement to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana or to legalize recreational use of the drug altogether.
At a news conference and at a Senate hearing, law enforcement leaders warned that loosening marijuana laws would undermine drug enforcement across the board. They said it would be premature to pass a bill following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington state, which recently legalized pot, and opposed a separate measure that would treat possession as a minor civil offense.
"This legislation sends a horrible message," said Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris, speaking for the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association.
Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, speaking on behalf of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, called the movement to legalize pot in Maryland "a rush to judgment."
Cassilly said the state should wait for legalization in Colorado and Washington to be thoroughly studied, instead of relying on "anecdotal evidence from a bunch of pot heads."
The otherwise solid show of support for the state's existing marijuana laws was cracked by the testimony of Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore police major who has emerged as a vocal opponent of the war on drugs in general and the prohibition of marijuana in particular.
"It didn't work back in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition," he said. "We should have learned from history."
Franklin argued the effect of prohibiting marijuana has been to leave its regulation in the hands of drug cartels and street gangs.
Most of the active law enforcement officers who attended took a hard line against legalizing marijuana for recreational use, though they were clear that their opposition did not extend to proposals making medical marijuana more readily available to those who need it.
"Those lines should not be blurred," said Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis, speaking at a morning news conference.
Some of the officers ran into trouble in the less-forgiving venue of the Senate hearing, where the sponsors of the legalization and decriminalization bills repeatedly sought proof of police assertions that law enforcement and public health would be hampered by their bills.
Annapolis Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop asserted that 37 people had died of marijuana overdoses on the first day of legalization in Colorado last month.
The claim drew groans from the packed hearing room. Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the legalization bill, pointed out that Pristoop had fallen for a hoax that ran in the satirical publication the Daily Currant.
Pristoop later issued an apology.
"I believed the information I obtained was accurate but I now know the story is nothing more than an urban legend," he said in a statement.
Police warnings of the danger of marijuana overdoses aroused skepticism among senators of both parties.
"The only people I've seen overdose on marijuana had a big snack and fell asleep," said Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.
Morris also took some heat from senators over his assertion that decriminalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in drug use.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and author of the decriminalization bill, said he had "looked high and low" for evidence from 16 states that now treat marijuana possession as a civil offense. He said he found no evidence suggesting that usage had increased. When Zirkin pressed Morris to back up his assertion with studies, the chief could not.
Public polls show growing support for loosening marijuana laws in Maryland and across the country. A recent Baltimore Sun Poll found that 58 percent of Maryland voters favor either legalization or decriminalization.