Marijuana decriminalization bill hits friction

Legislation that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana hit friction in a key committee Thursday afternoon.

The proposal to give only a fine - and not jail time - to people caught with less than 10 grams of pot passed the Senate earlier this month with bi-partisan support.


On Thursday, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee intensely questioned whether the measure went too far.

Del. Luiz Simmons pointed out the committee supported the limited medical marijuana plan, currently advancing in the Senate, that involves academic research. Simmons said the measure to abandon jail time essentially legalizes small amounts of pot, rendering the medical marijuana program unnecessary. 

"If we're effectively decriminalizing it, why would we want to study it?" asked Simmons, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Other lawmakers questioned whether to instead refer the issue to a task force, a move that often spells defeat for legislation in Annapolis.

Several lawmakers pointed out the state just relaxed penalties for marijuana possession last year.

Delegates also questioned if pot possession should still be a crime for minors, whether the law would hamper police's ability to enforce other drug laws and whether decriminalization would increase drug use. 
"Believe it or not, there are people out there who have values, and they won't do something because it is a crime," said Del. Michael McDermott, a Worcester County Republican. If smoking marijuana were no longer a crime, McDermott argued, more people would smoke it.

"I want people not to use dope," McDermott said.

Dan Riffle with the Marijuana Policy Project and the bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert Zirkin, presented the panel with data from other states that showed decriminalization elsewhere did not cause an uptick in marijuana smoking. 

"There are smarter ways to reduce marijuana use, and that is what we all want to do," Riffle said.

"I'm not looking to increase marijuana use," added Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. He said the point was to relieve the justice system from drug prosecutions that aren't effective and aren't fairly applied.
"I don't believe, philosophically, that an individual with a joint should go to jail," Zirkin said.