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 called 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 what they call 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