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Law enforcement opposes relaxing marijuana laws

ANNAPOLIS — Current and former law enforcement officers took opposing sides Tuesday in the debate over whether or not to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana or even legalize the recreational use of the drug.

Marijuana legislation

The heads of police and sheriff’s departments from around the state hold a news conference Tuesday in opposition to bills that decriminalize small amounts of marijuana or legalize the recreational use of the drug in Maryland. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

Representatives from the state associations representing sheriffs, chiefs of police and states’ attorneys, plus a national organization called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, were among more than 100 people who came to Annapolis to testify before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on three marijuana-related bills.

Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis, who previously spent 21 years with the Prince George’s County Police Department, called the debate over legalizing or decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana “a serious subject worthy of a healthy debate.”

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association opposes two bills: Senate Bill 364, a bill that would decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana and make it an offense punishable by a $100 civil citation fine, and SB 658, which would legalize, regulate and tax sales of the drug in Maryland in a manner similar to Colorado’s new law.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, is sponsoring the bill that reduces possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense. Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of the legalization bill.

Davis said his and other police departments around Maryland have concerns. “Those of us in law enforcement know all too well that smoking marijuana dulls the senses,” Davis said.

Davis also said Colorado and California are reporting increases in vehicle accidents involving marijuana use.

“Please don’t confuse the medical use of marijuana discussion with the recreational use of marijuana discussion,” Davis said. “Those lines should not be blurred.

“And be careful not to confuse legitimate concerns about incarceration rates with personal possession amounts of marijuana. The impact of legalization of marijuana on supply and demand on our streets has yet to be determined. The idea that less violence will occur is an unproven talking point casually used by proponents of legalization.”

Sheriff Michael A. Lewis of Wicomico County, speaking on behalf of the 24 sheriff’s departments in Maryland, said: “Marijuana legalization in Maryland is not the answer.”

“Anywhere marijuana has been legalized, they’ve had a dramatic increase — a catastrophic increase — in DUI arrests of those under the influence of weed,” Lewis said

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association is opposing the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana as well.

“This is a rush to judgment in hopes of ignoring what we believe will be catastrophic consequences from the decision in Colorado,” said Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

“Let’s wait, let’s study, let’s collect the evidence that we think is going to be generated. Then we can come back and have a discussion based on scientific evidence and not anecdotal comments from a bunch of potheads,” Cassilly said.

But not all law enforcement organizations oppose the two bills.

Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told legislators that making marijuana legal would reduce crime and take control away from drug traffickers.

“This is about the best drug policy we can have,” Franklin said. “Who do you want controlling it? Who do you want regulating it?”

Franklin’s organization advocates for legalizing use and regulating the sale of all illegal drugs.

“We’ve created a very, very dangerous world” with current drug laws, Franklin said.

Legislators will also be asked to consider changing a law passed last year that created a medical marijuana commission that was supposed to allow some patients to access the drug through academic medical centers in the state.

Supporters of the law say the bill has failed so far because many of the hospitals that are eligible to participate in the program refuse to do so because it could endanger federal grant funding. That’s because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

Senate Bill 923, also sponsored by Raskin, would allow physicians to register with the state program and dispense the drug.

The bills face different paths this session.

The Senate approved a version of Zirkin’s decriminalization bill last year and appears poised to do so again this year.

But the bill died last year in the House Judiciary Committee. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, the committee’s powerful chairman, has been opposed to the bill, and Zirkin and others believe he continues to be the major hurdle.

Meanwhile, Raskin’s legalization bill is untested. A number of senators on the committee expressed opposition to the measure.

“I’m just not there yet,” said Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee along with Raskin and Zirkin.

Brochin is not the only elected official who isn’t onboard with legalization. House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and Gov. Martin J. O’Malley have both expressed opposition to legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, said earlier this year he believes Maryland will legalize the recreational use of marijuana in his lifetime but expressed doubts that it would happen while he is in office.

Busch, Miller and O’Malley have all expressed interest in improving the medical marijuana bill passed last year in an attempt to help people suffering from various medical conditions.