Yet another U.S. state has passed legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. According to the Washington Post, on April 14, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a bill that reduces the penalty for possession of less than 10 grams of the drug to a civil fine, much like a traffic ticket. Once the law goes into effect on Oct. 1, offenders will no longer risk facing jail time if convicted of minor possession.
Under the new legislation, a first-time possession offense will carry a $100 fine, as opposed to criminal penalties. The fine amounts will increase for repeat offenders; up to $250 for a second offense; and up to $500 for third and subsequent offenses. Third-time offenders and those under the age of 21 will also be required to appear in court, undergo drug assessments, and enter a drug education program as opposed to simply paying a fine.
While Governor O’Malley still strongly opposes full legalization of marijuana, by signing this bill he conceded that public opinion towards the drug has shifted and now places a lower priority on possession-related transgressions. The District of Columbia and 15 states across the country have already passed decriminalization legislation, and two have fully legalized the drug for recreational use. Although the bill struggled to gain approval from state lawmakers initially, it eventually passed in the House by a 78 to 55 vote.
Decriminalizing possession of marijuana allows the government to focus on prosecuting more serious crimes in the area. It may also curb a nationwide issue with racial profiling, since more African Americans are arrested and serve jail time for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that both races use the drug at similar rates.
In addition to the decriminalization legislation, O’Malley also approved a bill making it easier for patients to access marijuana for medicinal use. The passing of the bill makes Maryland the 21st state in the country to allow patients suffering from ailments such as nausea, chronic pain, or seizures to be prescribed small amounts of marijuana. Once granted approval by a state-approved physician, patients will be issued identification cards that will enable them to obtain medicine from licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
The signing of the marijuana decriminalization bill concludes a 90-day legislative session, during which over 150 different bills were passed. Included in the legislation signed by the Governor on Monday were measures to limit domestic violence by increasing the amount of jail time for those who commit violence in front of a child, as well as legislation that toughens the penalties for drivers who cause serious collisions while using a cell phone. The Baltimore Sun notes that under what has come to be known as “Jake’s Law,” judges may now sentence drivers to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine if the crash they caused led to serious or fatal injuries.
O’Malley is almost at the end of his eight-year career as Governor of the state of Maryland, and will step down in January 2015. He previously served as Mayor of the city of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007 and is rumored to be considering a bid for democratic candidate in the next presidential election.