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Assembly scheduled to take up pot proposals this week

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers are set to get their first real whiff of marijuana legislation this session with hearings scheduled Tuesday on measures that look to lift or loosen the state’s ban on recreational use of the drug.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, would make it legal for residents 21 and older to possess, use and grow marijuana, which would be taxed and regulated like alcohol. Proponents say it would create revenue for the state and free up law enforcement officials to focus more time and resources on serious crimes.

“Marijuana arrests and prosecutions are costing us more than $100 million a year, and they are ruining the futures of thousands of our own citizens for doing something that our last four or five presidents readily admitted to doing themselves,” Raskin said. “Alcohol prohibition didn’t work, and marijuana prohibition is not working, and it’s time to have a serious discussion about it.”

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is also slated to hear an alternate proposal Tuesday that would bump the possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal offense down to a civil one.

Under the decriminalization bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, and Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, those caught with fewer than 10 grams of marijuana could be issued a citation and ordered to pay a fine, but would no longer have to appear in court.

A similar bill died in the House last session after earning majority support from the Senate, but Zirkin said he is hopeful about this version, which includes stricter provisions for minors caught with marijuana.

Zirkin said decriminalization offers an abundance of benefits without any of the risks and uncertainties that come with legalization.

“Philosophically, I don’t think [marijuana] should be an illegal substance, but you want to make sure that you’re not getting all these bad effects by moving too fast, too soon,” he said. “With decriminalization, this is something that’s been done for a long time in states across this country.”

Raskin has signed on in support of the decriminalization bill, but like other advocates of legalization, he has said that simply decriminalizing marijuana doesn’t do enough to take control away from drug dealers. Banning the substance drives up its cost and puts money into the pockets of criminals, legalization supporters argue.

“I want to put the drug dealers out of business, and the way to do that is to have government regulate, tax and control marijuana in our state,” Raskin said.

Under his bill, Marylanders could possess up to an ounce of marijuana and own as many as six plants, though smoking the drug in public would remain prohibited. Revenue brought in by the state would fund things like school construction projects and drug and alcohol treatment programs, supporters said at a news conference last month.

Gov. Martin O’Malley has expressed opposition to legalization, calling marijuana a “gateway to more harmful activity.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to weigh a handful of measures seeking to change Maryland’s marijuana laws, including a decriminalization bill sponsored in the House by gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery.

As part of her gubernatorial campaign, Mizeur has proposed legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana in order to finance pre-kindergarten education for all Maryland children. Mizeur’s opponents in the June Democratic primary — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — have voiced support for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

-Megan Brockett, CNS

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