ANNAPOLIS — Dozens of people testifying before Maryland lawmakers on Tuesday called for an end to the state’s battle against marijuana, one part of the decades-long national war on drugs that supporters of legalization and decriminalization say has done more harm than good.
In the session’s first real wave of marijuana legislation hearings, members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee weighed measures proposing to make recreational use of the drug legal for people 21 and older. Another proposal would shift possession of small amounts of the drug to a civil, rather than criminal, offense.
In a heated debate, proponents of both bills pointed to what they said are the negative consequences of prohibiting marijuana, including the barriers to employment and education created by marijuana-related arrests and the racial disparities that often surface in arrests.
In 2010, Maryland had the fourth-highest arrest rate for marijuana possession, with African Americans being arrested for possession at higher rates than whites in every county in the state, according to a report released by the ACLU in October.
“We’ve really turned [the war on marijuana] into a war against against our own people,” said Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the legalization bill. “We have criminalized and demonized tens of thousands of our fellow Marylanders, we have ruined many of their prospects for success in the labor market and the job force, we have been spending more than $100 million a year on criminal arrest prosecution and supervision of people for marijuana related offenses, and yet we didn’t put a dent into the demand for the drug, and so indirectly we have been supporting the drug gangs and the international drug cartel.”
Many advocates of the legalization legislation also urged lawmakers to consider the “wasted” time and resources of law enforcement officials to deal with marijuana-related crimes, taking attention away from violent crimes.
While testimonial support for the two separate pieces of legislation merged at times, Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, sponsor of the decriminalization bill, repeatedly drew attention to the significant distinctions.
Zirkin’s bill would make the possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine. The legalization bill looks to create government regulation and taxation of the drug, making it legal for residents to possess, use and grow it.
Supporters said the legalization measure would bring the state an additional $100 million of revenue while taking money away from drug dealers and weakening organized crime.
But opponents of both bills raised concerns about the “message” legalization or decriminalization would send. Law enforcement officials testifying in opposition pointed to unintended consequences of the legislation, such as a potential increase in “drug driving” and a hike in the number of people trying the drug for the first time.
Many testifying in opposition made the argument that neither measure would stop organized crime or gang violence.
“Whether we decriminalize marijuana or not there will always be drug traffickers … bringing it into … the United States … destined for the streets of Maryland,” said Wicomico County Sheriff Michael Lewis. “If, in fact, it’s legalized … it will certainly open the doors to these drug traffickers to bring in large shipments, much larger than are being brought in today.”
Opposition testimony from law enforcement officials like Lewis and Riverdale Park Chief of Police David Morris spurred the most questions and challenges from lawmakers, especially from Zirkin and Raskin.
The sides sparred over whether a decriminalization bill would create added and problematic obstacles for police officers or prevent them from making searches on the basis of marijuana odor, which some law enforcement officials said often leads to the discovery of more serious drugs.
But a number of law enforcement officials testifying in support of the legalization and decriminalization efforts focused on the impact they believe such measures would have in reducing drug-related violent crime.
Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a retired major from the Maryland State Police, pointed to Baltimore, calling it one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country.
“It is definitely my opinion that that is due mostly … [to] the prohibition of drugs,” he said.
Franklin said legalizing marijuana would dramatically cut down on violent crime in the city and in other areas of the state.
Last year, the Senate voted 30-16 to pass a similar decriminalization measure sponsored by Zirkin, but the bill eventually died in the House.
Zirkin is confident the Senate will vote to pass this year’s version, which “does more to hold juveniles accountable,” but he said he couldn’t speak for the House.
“I’m hopeful that they will take a look at the evidence, take a look at the stats, take a look at the experience of the states [that have passed similar laws], and come to conclusion that most of us have … that this is an issue [that] is really good for the citizens of Maryland, is an important thing to do, and not wait,” Zirkin said in an interview Friday.
Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a radio interview at the start of the session that he was against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, but public opinion on the issue appears to be shifting.
A poll released by Gallup in October showed that support for legalization among Americans grew by 10 percentage points in one year, with 58 percent saying they supported legalizing the drug. The poll, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, marked the first time in history that a clear majority said they favored legalization, Gallup said.
Capital News Service video by Emily Stern.