Legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana was signed into law on Monday by Governor Martin O'Malley. That makes Maryland the 18th state which has taken this step.
The new law, which goes into affect on October 1st, would fine anyone possessing less than 10 grams of pot $100 for the first offense. A second offense would net a $250 fine, and $500 for subsequent offenses. Third time offenders under 21 years of age would be required to undergo a clinical assessment for a substance abuse disorder and a drug education program.
"We know that especially in Maryland there is a disproportionate number of young men of color who are targeted by these laws, even though people of all races consume marijuana at equal rates," says Rachelle Yeung with the Marijuana Policy Project.
The Maryland State's Attorneys' Association sent a letter to the Governor, urging him to veto this bill. President Charlie Smith, whose also the State's Attorney for Frederick County, said the bill hastily passed by the General Assembly and contains flaws that could compromise public safety. But Yeung says this bill was fully vetted by the Legislature, and opponents and supporters had a chance to speak about it. "All sides of the issue were able to come forward and discuss potential benefits and affects of these laws," she said.
Smith, in his letter, also wanted the bill to have amendments which maintained criminal penalties for possessing marijuana on school property. "I think public consumption is a separate issue. We know different states do treat the smoking of tobacco in public places as a finable offense. I don't think making it a criminal offense really serves the community in any way," Yeung responded.
Opponents also say the new law has some ambiguities which police and prosecutors need to address. Even though possession of pot will be decriminalized, possession of rolling papers, pipes and other marijuana accessories will still remain a criminal offense.
Also, prosecutors say it may be difficult for police to determine whether a suspect has been arrested before because prior non-criminal offenses will not show up on a criminal database.
Another concern that opponents have is that decriminalizing marijuana is another step to legalizing it for recreational use. Yeung says that's a possibility. "We think that taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol is the better model than decriminalization," she says. Marijuana for recreational use is legal in Colorado and Washington state.
In addition to decriminalizing pot, the Governor also signed a bill to allow persons with serious illnesses to have access to medical marijuana, if their doctors recommend it.