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Decriminalizing marijuana is a good start [Commentary]

Unfortunately, too many of our state's families were separated for the holidays thanks to our overly punitive marijuana laws. In Maryland, those convicted of marijuana possession can go away for up to a year, just for the nonviolent crime of possessing a substance less toxic and addictive than alcohol or tobacco.

We have an opportunity this year to change that through the introduction and passage of legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Seventeen states have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana, but Maryland is not one of them. In fact, Maryland is one of the strictest states in the country when it comes to marijuana possession — not simply because of the law on its books but also because of the way the "Free State" chooses to enforce it. Maryland arrests roughly 23,000 people each year for marijuana possession, giving it the third highest arrest rate per capita of all 50 states. One percent of Baltimore City residents are arrested for possession in any given year. Under current leadership, our state is one of the leading generals in our country's failed war on drugs.

It would be one thing if our marijuana enforcement was merely misguided; it's entirely more appalling that it's blatantly disproportionate along racial lines. Despite even usage rates between whites and blacks, our state's African-Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white peers. In Baltimore City, blacks are nearly six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

The excessive criminalization of marijuana has ruined lives, made our communities less safe and wasted valuable law enforcement resources that would be better spent on serious and violent crimes. We can do better. Our experience on the campaign trail tells us that Maryland voters are ready to embrace our plan to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.

It will take an election and a new mandate by voters to shift old ways of thinking about this issue in Annapolis. Our legalization plan will be one of our first orders of business once elected. But we cannot sit idly by for another year while our unjust laws continue to ruin lives. We can measure meaningful progress on this journey by working in 2014 to decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana while building the momentum for full legalization in 2015.

Last year, decriminalization passed the Senate — thanks to the dogged advocacy of its lead sponsor, Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat — but was never even brought up for a vote in the House of Delegates. This year, Del. Heather Mizeur will advance passage of similar legislation in the House.

We need executive leadership to help get this done. We were barely able to pass a scaled back version of medical marijuana because of the current administration's discomfort with the issue. But this should not be a tough policy call. Reforming marijuana laws is far from outside the mainstream views of the Democratic Party. Governor Peter Shumlin, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, led Vermont to decriminalization earlier this year. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has made marijuana decriminalization a priority of his administration. Even President Bill Clinton supports this sensible reform. In a recent Goucher poll, only 6 percent of Marylanders favored jail time as a consequence for marijuana possession.

Matters of inequality in our justice system must be corrected with the utmost urgency. Every legislative session that goes by without the courage to change our failed approach means another holiday season when nonviolent offenders are locked up and kept away from their families. It's well past time for us to address this injustice.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur represents the 20th Legislative District in Montgomery County and is a Democratic candidate for governor. Her email is heather@heathermizeur.com. Rev. Delman L. Coates is the senior pastor for Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George's County and is a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. His email is delman@heathermizeur.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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