MARYLAND: If the nation’s largest marijuana lobbying organization has its way, Maryland will legalize marijuana by 2017.
The Marijuana Policy Project announced this week that Maryland and nine other states will be targets of a renewed push for marijuana policy reform.
That means legislation like the decriminalization bill introduced by state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, may have a better chance of making progress in the next General Assembly session.
Zirkin’s bill failed to come to a vote in the House this spring but he plans to re-introduce the bill next year, and may even go a step further and propose legislation that would put the decision in voters’ hands by referendum, he said.
“What I’m proposing is not some radical proposition,” Zirkin said. “It’s been done in a variety of states all across the country. The results have been studied. It’s not a hard argument.”
Zirkin’s decriminalization bill would have changed marijuana possession of less than 10 grams from a criminal to a civil offense. Instead of facing up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, perpetrators would pay a maximum $100 fine. It was supported by a 30-16 bipartisan vote in the Maryland Senate.
Zirkin said he met with representatives from the Marijuana Policy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland earlier this week to discuss plans for moving forward.
“We’re very interested in supporting this bill,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project
Over the next few years, Marylanders can expect increased public conversation about the topic as analysts from the organization testify in hearings, recruit witnesses and submit written testimony, she said. A portion of the $2 million to $5 million in donations the group receives every year could be designated for education and publicity initiatives in Maryland, O’Keefe said.
Maryland is one of 12 states that considered marijuana decriminalization or legalization bills this year, O’Keefe said. The biggest push for new legislation is happening in New England and in the western United States, with particular appeal among younger voters, she said.
In May, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill that authorized teaching hospitals and research centers in Maryland to distribute medical marijuana. The state also recently reduced penalties for marijuana possession under 10 grams and authorized “medical necessity” as legal defense for marijuana use. But while these changes constitute a small step forward, the impact may not be widely felt, said O’Keefe.
“Maryland has taken wary steps for medical marijuana,” she said. “There are tiny programs and barely any patients qualify.”