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Editorial: Smoking pot and driving should be criminal offense

Should marijuana and alcohol be treated the same? For all intents and purposes, that's what it comes down to in the Maryland General Assembly's debate on whether to override Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill that reduces smoking marijuana in public from a criminal offense to a civil offense.

Law enforcement entities, including those in Carroll County, largely applauded last year when Hogan vetoed that bill, among others.

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It was actually two years ago that the legislature decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, making possession of less than 10 grams a civil offense rather than a criminal one. However, in an oversight, lawmakers didn't decriminalize possession of paraphernalia, meaning you could have less than 10 grams of pot and get a civil citation, but be criminally charged for having a pipe to smoke it. We can all agree that didn't make sense. However, attempts to fix it in last year's legislative session included making smoking pot in public a civil violation as well.

Police, including Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees and municipal chiefs in the county, argued that smoking marijuana in public or smoking it while operating or sitting in a vehicle should be a crime, just like drinking alcohol in public or while driving.

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Again, we think most people would agree that we don't want people smoking pot behind the wheel or in public places. Whether smoking marijuana in public is a misdemeanor crime or a civil violation, there probably isn't much of a practical difference. Either would likely involve a hefty fine but no jail time. In theory, this should be a deterrent for someone thinking of lighting up at a park or a playground.

Smoking while driving is where things, no pun intended, get a little hazy. Those arguing to override the veto say there has been no change to laws on driving while impaired. Doing so is still a criminal offense, whether it's alcohol, pot or something else that has led to the impairment. This is true. However, law enforcement argues that if smoking marijuana behind the wheel isn't a misdemeanor criminal offense, it's not clear whether police can pull over a vehicle driven by someone smoking pot. (Nevermind additional issues of probable cause that arise with a threshold for criminal marijuana possession.) And if police can't initiate the traffic stop, it could be harder to get impaired drivers off the road.

"If you are operating a motor vehicle smoking it, if you are in a motor vehicle smoking it and a driver is there, someone's driving down the road, they can get high merely by being in the vehicle," DeWees told us. "So I don't support you being able to smoke marijuana in public or in a vehicle at all. I just believe anybody who thinks that should have their head checked, honestly, because it makes no sense whatsoever."

Until that's cleared up, we think the veto should stand, or instead of overriding the veto, a new piece of legislation should be pursued that clears up possession of paraphenilia but keeps smoking in public or behind the wheel a criminal offense, just as having an open container of alcohol would be.

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