Carroll County Times

Pot shot: Will Maryland take the leap to decrimalize or legalize marijuana?

Same-sex marriage in 2012. Sweeping gun control laws in 2013.

Marijuana legalization in 2014?

The General Assembly is considering legalizing or decriminalizing pot, following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington state.

Bills introduced this year to loosen the state's marijuana laws include two that would decriminalize the drug by making possession of small amounts a civil offense and reducing the penalty to a fine.

One bill would put Maryland on a path to regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol.

In a letter last week to Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, one of his competitors in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown said he supported decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug.

Brown said resources that go into enforcing the state's marijuana laws could be used on substance abuse treatment or on fighting violent crime. Mizeur supports making possession of small amounts of the drug a civil offense.

But Brown's boss isn't sold.

While a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said last week that he would "carefully review any legislation that passes the General Assembly before making a decision," he said earlier this year he's "not much in favor" of legalizing the drug.

Meanwhile, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, favors the idea, but House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, says he has reservations rooted in marijuana's health risks.

Del. Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, said she can't believe the state legislature is considering an even more "liberal" stance on a criminal activity. Vitale opposed O'Malley's gun control package last year and said she'll oppose any marijuana decriminalization or legalization this year.

"What we're attempting to do is hope to change behavior by making illegal behavior OK," Vitale said. "That's just not a theory I subscribe to."

Busch has put together a legislative work group to look at every proposal on this issue. Its first meeting was Friday.

The group is charged with looking at laws in other states and what has been proposed in Maryland and coming up with some sort of agreement.

Three bills in the General Assembly are gaining the most attention:

  • The most sweeping, proposed by Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, would regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol. Busch said Anderson's bill will be the measure the legislative work group works from.
  • A proposal by Mizeur would decriminalize marijuana by making possession of up to 1 ounce a civil offense, punishable by a fine.
  • A measure pushed by state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, would decriminalize marijuana by making possession of up to 10 grams a civil offense, punishable by a fine. A similar bill passed the Senate last year, but never got out of the House Judiciary Committee.

Anderson's bill would impose an excise tax of $50 per ounce on the sale of marijuana by a cultivation facility. This would generate an estimated $91.3 million per year.


Mizeur has said legalizing and regulating marijuana in Maryland could generate up to $157.5 million in revenue annually.

Mizeur has said that if elected governor she would try to use $153 million of that revenue to provide up to 23,625 children with a full day of pre-kindergarten each year. The other $4 million would go into drug education.


"We don't have to wait until 2015 to make progress," Mizeur said.

Proponents of loosening state marijuana laws say possession arrests eat up resources that could better be used elsewhere.

In his letter to Mizeur, Brown said that four years ago the state spent more than $55 million in policing costs alone on the enforcement of marijuana laws.

In Anne Arundel County, 1,144 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2012, according to Maryland's Uniform Crime Report. Maryland has averaged 24,065 marijuana possession arrests a year over the last five years, nearly 10,000 more a year than for opium/cocaine.

Opponents of changes in the marijuana laws - including the board of governors of the Maryland State's Attorney's Association - say that before acting the state should see how legalization in Colorado and Washington plays out.

Anne Colt Leitess, state's attorney for Anne Arundel County, said groups pushing marijuana legalization are ignoring the fact that there's no mechanism to test drivers who could be under the drug's influence.

Colt Leitess also said there's a need for laws against subjecting children to marijuana inhalation.

"Will that be a crime - to expose children to smoke? How can we enforce this? What should a schoolteacher do when they smell marijuana smoke on a child's clothes?" she said.


Anne Arundel County police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith said the department defers to the law and the recommendations of the police chief's association.

"At this point, we as a police department don't have a position," Smith said. "We'll follow suit with whatever the law is."

State law enforcement officials oppose all three bills, said Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris.

Morris co-chairs the legislative committee for the Maryland Police Chiefs and Sheriff's associations. He said he was concerned about the "unintended consequences" of the current proposals.

"We know that it's an addictive drug, we know that cannabinoids have a range of psychological and physical effects," Morris said. "Decriminalization for a specific age group is not going to deter adolescents."

Busch doesn't think decriminalization will pass this year. Legalizing the drug entirely is too complex a move for lawmakers to make this session, he said. And, Busch said, there is a public health aspect to the debate.


"I've spent my whole life trying to keep kids away from alcohol, tobacco and drugs," said Busch, a parent and former coach and teacher.

Zirkin's bill is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb. 25.