Pubdate: Thu, 27 Feb 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Author: Fredrick Kunkle


A day after more than a 100 people packed a Maryland State House 
committee room to share their views on legalizing marijuana, 
advocates for easing prohibitions on the drug said they feel momentum 
building in their favor.

"The floodgates for change are open now," said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin 
(D-Montgomery), who has sponsored a bill that would legalize 
marijuana and impose taxes and regulations on its distribution and 
use. "We have essentially vilified and criminalized our own people 
for doing something that our last three or four presidents have 
admitted to doing. That is a theme I heard yesterday."

But Raskin also cautioned that while he thinks there is a real 
possibility that the legislature might agree to reduce the criminal 
penalties for marijuana use, the chance of legalizing marijuana 
remains more remote.

Lawmakers have sponsored bills in the Maryland General Assembly that 
would rewrite nearly a century of laws and policies outlawing 
marijuana. Some want to address problems in the medical-marijuana 
bill that was passed last year so that patients and doctors can more 
easily access the drug. Others seek to decriminalize marijuana by 
treating possession of small amounts as something like a traffic 
ticket. Others, such as Raskin, would prefer to legalize marijuana, 
classifying it in the same way as alcohol.

On Tuesday, dozens of Marylanders joined the debate, often with 
highly emotional testimony that drew on their own experiences with the drug.

College students, parents, police officers and others packed the 
Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing while others waited in the 
lobby, wearing green ribbons or cannabis leaf insignias as a show of 
support for Raskin's bill.

Many were supportive of legalization, and even more backed a measure 
- - sponsored by Sens. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and Allan 
H. Kittleman (R-Howard) - that would impose a noncriminal fine of up 
to $100 for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.

Several of those who testified admitted to having tried marijuana, 
though often also noting that they didn't find it to their liking. 
Some told of how an arrest for having a small amounts of pot had 
initiated a lifelong ordeal. Others appealed to libertarian sentiments.

Gregory Reina, 59, identified himself as a "taxpaying homeowner" who 
had been married 33 years, raised two sons and now, as a retiree, 
stayed active refereeing youth sports. He covered a host of reasons 
marijuana should at least be decriminalized, including his experience 
with a substance that he believes is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.

"[ Yet] if I wanted to get marijuana, I was terrified I may be shot 
and robbed. Eighty percent of the homicides in Baltimore city are 
drug-related," Reina said. He also scoffed at the idea that marijuana 
is a gateway to abuse of more dangerous drugs. That's only because 
it's illegal, he said: "After all, customers buying wine for dinner 
are not offered heroin."

Others argued that it was time to end a policy that brings the weight 
of the justice system down hardest on minorities.

Some of the strongest pushback came from law enforcement officers, 
including David Morris, the police chief in Riverdale Park. He told 
the panel that decriminalizing marijuana would send the wrong message 
to young people.

Annapolis Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop went awry, however, in 
citing an online news article that said 37 people in Colorado had 
died after overdosing on marijuana on the day that state legalized 
the drug. The article was a hoax published by a satirical Web site - 
which Raskin pointed out to an embarrassed Pristoop in the middle of 
his testimony.

Late Tuesday, the chief apologized for the mistake.

"I believed the information I obtained was accurate, but I now know 
the story is nothing more than an urban legend," Pristoop said in a 
statement. "This does not take away from the other facts presented in 
opposition to legalization or the good work of the Maryland Chiefs 
and Maryland Sheriffs associations."

The state Senate passed a decriminalization bill last year that died 
in the House Judiciary Committee, which also became the burial ground 
for a House bill like Raskin's.

But marijuana advocates hope that this year will be different, 
especially because Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has set 
up a working group to find a way forward on marijuana legislation.

Busch has said, however, that Maryland would be wise to assess the 
implementation of new legalization laws in Colorado and Washington 
state before attempting to follow their lead.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom