Signs of Movement on Marijuana Issue in Annapolis


first_imgMaryland could soon see a stronger marijuana decriminalization law. It seems well on the path to outright legalization (though perhaps not this session), if the tone of last week’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing on a slate of marijuana bills is any indication.Senate Bill 456 establishes medical necessity as an affirmative defense against a marijuana possession charge and requires the court to dismiss the charges under these circumstances. Senate Bill 517 extends decriminalization to all amounts of marijuana, and Senate Bill 531 creates a legal marketplace for marijuana in Maryland. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard all three bills simultaneously on March 4.Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), chair of Judicial Proceedings and sponsor of the two of the bills, scheduled these items ahead of the 14 others to be heard that day, providing ample time for those who came to testify in marked contrast to the scheduling of the criminal justice bills heard earlier this session.Sara Love, public policy director for the ACLU Maryland, was first to testify in support of the bills. She noted that in 70 percent of searches conducted by police with smelling marijuana as the probable cause, no drugs were found, suggesting that the claim is often a pretense for search and seizure. By extension, Love argued, laws criminalizing the use or possession of marijuana have become a pretext for otherwise unconstitutional searches that have racially disparate impacts, necessitating the reform of such laws.Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) pushed Love on her claim, and asked, if in 30 percent of searches police did find drugs or worse, was it not worth preserving their ability to search. “We have a system in our society where police aren’t just allowed to go in [and search],” said Love. “Is it worth it if [police] search everybody’s houses if they find extra guns and drugs? No, because we have a system of justice. They have to have probable cause to believe that that person is breaking the law.”When Brochin continued asking if the search results indicated marijuana was a gateway to further illegal activity, Zirkin interrupted stating that Brochin’s teenage daughter, seated behind her father, was shaking her head in disagreement.The hearing room broke out in laughter, and a lightness of mood underscored the movement that has occurred on the issue of marijuana in Maryland. Though some senators expressed lingering skepticism about the growing body of research showing fewer deleterious effects of marijuana as compared to alcohol, no one forced that particular point.At one point, Sen. Bob Cassilly (R-Harford County) seemed interested in finding a way to address some of the social consequences marijuana laws have wrought on the state (labor issues related to drug convictions ), even if he would prefer the laws otherwise remain on the books.If opposition among the committee’s senators seemed tepid, support for the various measures from members of Judicial Proceedings was much more aggressive, with opposition testimony facing some strong headwinds.When Joseph Cassilly of the Harford County State’s Attorney’s Office testified in opposition to legalization, Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County), sponsor of the legalization bill, asked whether alcohol was more addictive than marijuana.“Look at the scientific studies,” said Cassilly. “I’m not going to give you my personal opinion.”“All the studies that have been forwarded to us have [found] that [alcohol] is far more addictive. It’s not even close,” Raskin replied.After Chief David Morris, as a representative of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, asserted that for every study supporters produced to bolster their claims, opponents could produce a study showing the opposite, Zirkin pounced.“Sen. [Christopher] Shank and I were looking last year high and low for any evidence that decriminalization – not legalization, but decriminalization – had any of the ill-effects that the chiefs stated at their press conference last year,” said Zirkin. “We found none. I mean literally zero, in any state that when they moved from a criminal sanction to a civil sanction, that there was any of the ill-effects that you’ve said. We asked for the evidence last year and we got nothing. Over the interim, we’ve gotten nothing. And at this point in time, I’ve still got nothing.”Zirkin then suggested Morris provide whatever data he had available, but the message seemed clear – this debate is guided by data, and the data strongly leans in the direction of passing, at the minimum, a stronger decriminalization bill.There was no real indication legalization will become a reality this session, but the legislative landscape seems to be tilting in that direction, with strong support, at least in Judicial Proceedings, for further movement away from the criminalization that has been the historic approach towards marijuana in Maryland. ralejandro@afro.comlast_img

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