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Md. Senate panel considers bill to expand marijuana decriminalization

Marijuana plants grow under special lights. Reports filed with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission indicate that about 10 percent of the investors in the state’s industry are minorities. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Marijuana plants grow under special lights. Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise the amount of marijuana that could be possessed without being subject to criminal charges. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Legislation that would nearly triple the amount of marijuana a person could possess before being considered a criminal came before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday.

Under current law, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is a civil offense – not a crime – and punishable by a $100 fine. The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 143, would raise that civil-offense threshold to less than one ounce, or 28.35 grams.

The bill’s sponsor and supporters — including a civil rights group — said the further decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use would reduce the number of Blacks in the criminal justice system, as they are disproportionately arrested for possessing a drug many regard as no more harmful than alcohol.

Opponents of the bill’s near tripling of marijuana decriminalization – including prosecutors – said nobody possesses such a large quantity of marijuana for personal use.

“We are now in a racial reckoning when it comes to criminal justice,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the bill’s sponsor. “It is the right thing to do to meet the moment.”

Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery and the committee’s vice chair, added the bill’s increased civil offense threshold could serve as “a bridge” to the eventual legalization of recreational marijuana use. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in varying amounts for recreational use, according to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Yanet Amanuel, of the ACLU of Maryland, told the Senate committee that the “war on drugs” has had a disparate impact on minority communities and led to the “unnecessary entanglement” of young Black men in the criminal justice system for simple possession of marijuana.

Further decriminalization would “stop punishing people” who are using the drugs for personal use and not illegal distribution, said Amanuel, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Maryland chapter.

Stanford Fraser, of the Maryland public defender’s office, said possession of less than an ounce of marijuana has either been legalized or decriminalized in the state’s neighboring jurisdictions of Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., thus making a criminal out of anyone who brings their personal supply across the Maryland state line.

Bringing the state into accord with its neighbors “gets Maryland in a positive direction,” Fraser told the committee.

But Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said an ounce of marijuana is the equivalent of 30 to 45 joints, well above a personal use amount and indicative of an intent to distribute.

Shellenberger said prosecutors statewide have sought alternatives to prison for those convicted of possessing 10 grams or slightly more of marijuana, such as by pressing for sentences of community service and diversion programs including drug treatment. But an ounce of marijuana is a lot more than 10 grams.

That quantity “hopefully, would not be consumed by one person in one day,” Shellenberger told the Senate committee in opposing the bill on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, a committee member who opposes the bill, said someone with enough marijuana for 30 joints is presumably not engaged in merely personal use but is a distributor of the drug.

“Are we going to turn a blind eye to that,” said Cassilly, R-Harford. “Either legalize (marijuana) or don’t legalize it. But let’s be honest with ourselves.”

Sen. Michael J. Hough, a committee member, summarized the bill hearing in voicing concern about increasing the decriminalized amount of marijuana.

“It seems we’ve already crossed the Rubicon” of decriminalization, said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll. “Now, we’re just debating the amount.”

S.B. 143 has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of the cross-filed House Bill 324.

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