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Marijuana hearings reflect public opinion shift

Backers of decriminalization, legalization rally in Annapolis

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

9:25 PM EDT, March 13, 2014

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An NAACP leader, a former Maryland State Police major, a candidate for governor and a mother seeking to help her son with epilepsy converged Thursday on Annapolis to support more liberal marijuana laws.

A number of bills, backed by lawmakers from a range of philosophical backgrounds, are moving through the General Assembly this year as a broader swath of the electorate has embraced legalizing or decriminalizing the drug.

Roughly 100 people rallied Thursday outside the State House to show support for a Colorado-style system to legalize marijuana, an idea that got a hearing later in the day. Also Thursday, a key committee approved a bill to loosen restrictions that some say have hampered the state's nascent medical marijuana program.

Meanwhile, a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana got a hearing in the House and is expected to pass the Senate Friday. And Maryland's state's attorneys backed an alternative proposal Thursday to divert first-time marijuana offenders into education or treatment programs rather than prosecuting them.

"People's minds change, and we're seeing this in public opinion polls throughout this state," said Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County, who has made legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana a central issue in her race for the Democratic nomination for governor.

But many of the proposals still face uncertain futures at best. Supporters of traditional drug enforcement also turned out in force in Annapolis — many of them police chiefs and sheriffs in uniform.

Legislation to legalize and decriminalize marijuana are not likely to pass both chambers.

Del. Kevin Kelly, an Allegany County Democrat, said he had heard that one out of six people who try marijuana before 15 develops a substance-abuse problem. "You're ruining their life, he said. "They're going to be selling this all over the place."

A recent Baltimore Sun Poll showed that 58 percent favor a shift away from criminal penalties for marijuana possession, but they are split on how to do it. While 28 percent think possession should be decriminalized — that is, treated like a traffic ticket — 30 percent think it should be legalized and taxed.

The group at the rally on Lawyer's Mall included young and old, regular marijuana users and abstainers. Among them was Elizabeth Yun of Greenbelt, who carried a sign with pictures of her 9-year-old son Julius. She said her research has led her to believe that a non-psychoactive but still illegal form of cannabis could help ease her son's epileptic seizures.

Lawmakers say they are intent on improving upon a medical marijuana bill approved last year. That law allowed medical marijuana for patients suffering from certain painful, chronic conditions but restricted the program to academic medical centers — none of which agreed to participate.

A House committee approved a bill Thursday allowing more physicians to prescribe marijuana, while a Senate panel deferred action on a similar proposal.

Mizeur told those at the rally that this could be a year for meaningful progress. Not many years ago, Mizeur's proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana would have been seen as an idea from the political left fringe. Yet her bill has more than 40 co-sponsors, including two of the House's most conservative Republicans.

She also acknowledged, however, that the legal distribution of marijuana in Maryland could be at least a year away.

"It's likely to take an election and a mandate from voters to change old ways of thinking in Annapolis," she said. "This year medical marijuana seems like the easy thing to do. Decriminalization seems like the middle path."

While the Senate passed a decriminalization bill last year, the House — led by Speaker Michael E. Busch — has remained resistant.

Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and leading Busch ally, has sponsored the bill that would require each county to set up diversion programs for first-time offenders. While she said she believed marijuana would eventually be legal, Jones presented the bill as a prudent alternative.

"I feel we need to be cautious, take a breath and not rush to judgment," she said at a hearing.

Proponents of legalizing marijuana, including Baltimore Democratic Del. Curt Anderson, said Maryland wastes law enforcement resources on a drug that is less dangerous than alcohol. The current policy leaves many young people with arrest records that hold them back in life, they argued.

The Rev. S. Todd Yeary, political action director of the state NAACP, said that "the longer we wait, the more pernicious this becomes." Yeary, pastor of Baltimore's Douglas Memorial Community Church, urged delegates to "dismantle the failed 40-year-plus war on drugs in this state."

Legalization supporters argued that a state-regulated distribution system would take the business out of the hands of criminal gangs and provide a safe environment for consumers to purchase marijuana without being exposed to more dangerous drugs.

But opponents, including police and prosecutors, expressed doubt that legalization would crowd out criminal gangs.

Frederick County State Attorney J. Charles Smith III, representing the state's prosecutors, said drug cartels would fight to retain a market niche. In Colorado, he said, "they see organized crime already infiltrating legal distribution outlets."

Smith's opposition was buttressed by other police witnesses, who warned that decriminalization and legalization would lead to a many more deadly accidents caused by drivers under the influence of marijuana.

But Neill Franklin, a former Maryland State Police major who has turned against the war on drugs, said some law enforcement officials back the status quo because they are protecting their turf. "I get it — why police don't want to lose marijuana as a pretext to search," Franklin said. Enforcing marijuana laws, he said, "has become our identity. It's what we do."

Though he said he supports decriminalization, Montgomery County Democrat Luiz R.S. Simmons challenged Mizeur's assertion that Maryland could save $280 million in law enforcement costs by decriminalizing marijuana.

Simmons argued that most marijuana arrests are incidental to other violations. He said police seldom set out to catch people for simple marijuana possession violations. And recent changes to state law have sharply reduced the number of prosecutions, Simmons said.

"This is a huge exaggeration being made about Maryland. People are not going to jail for simple possession in Maryland," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com