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State Senate votes to decriminalize marijuana

Possession of small amounts of marijuana would be treated as a civil offense rather than a crime under a bill that passed the Senate Friday.

The vote was 36 to 8. The measure now goes to the House of Delegates, where similar legislation last year failed to get out of committee.

Under the bill, anyone caught with 10 grams or less of the drug would be issued a civil citation and fined up to $100. Juveniles would be required to appear in court and could be ordered into drug treatment, as could adults receiving their third citation.

Proponents argued that recreational marijuana use should be decriminalized to shield those caught from a record that could cost them jobs or getting kicked out of school. Nearly 20,000 Marylanders were charged last year, and 3,000 fined or jailed, according to Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, with Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, opposed decriminalization, arguing that "just say no" was a better approach to drug usage. He warned that teen-agers would be encouraged to use marijuana because the penalty would be a fraction of what they could get for underage alcohol consumption.

But Zirkin countered that there's no evidence from the 18 states that have already decriminalized marijuana use that it leads to increased drug use, either among juveniles or adults.

"The war on drugs is not working," said Sen. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, who said he was persuaded to drop his opposition to the bill in part because he saw racial disparity in how the current law is enforced. He said treating marijuana use as a crime is a waste of public resources that could be better spent on more serious crimes and on providing treatment to those who need it.

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