Legalizing Marijuana Takes Center Stage In Legislature

BERLIN — Decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana in Maryland took center stage this week in the General Assembly at a key Senate committee hearing on Tuesday with law enforcement officials across the state lining up in opposition to those supporting the measure.

Dozens on both sides of the issue gathered in Annapolis on Tuesday for the first of what will likely be several hearings on the latest attempt to legalize marijuana in Maryland. The issue at hand during Tuesday’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing were measures proposed to make recreational use of marijuana legal for those 21 years old and older with a system in place to regulate and tax the drug, similar to systems adopted in Colorado and Washington. Another bill circulating would make simple possession of marijuana a civil infraction with a fine of up to $100, rather than a criminal offense.

Before the hearing, however, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office joined a coalition of sheriff and police chief associations around the state coming out firmly against any attempt to legalize or decriminalize weed in Maryland. According to the Maryland Chiefs of Police and Maryland Sheriffs Association statement released this week prior to Tuesday’s hearing, a pair of bills circulating in the House and Senate would negatively impact public safety.

“Chiefs and Sheriffs representing the Maryland law enforcement community understand the basis of the legislation, but nevertheless are adamantly opposed,” the statement reads. “Maryland law enforcement executives believe, if enacted, this legislation will have a potentially crippling effect on public safety, highway safety and, most troubling, will negatively impact children.”

The sheriff’s and chief’s statement points out a wide range of studies show recreational use of marijuana produces psychological and physical problems for adolescents.

“Traffic accidents, particularly fatalities, are often caused by drivers under the influence of illegal drugs,” the statement reads. “Marijuana is notably responsible for an increase in such states where decriminalization has occurred. The detectability of marijuana in drivers presents troubling difficulty for law enforcement and prosecution. Legalization or decriminalization of marijuana will also negatively impact our police officers’ ability to detect and interdict other illegal drugs, which surely hurts public safety and may contribute to violence and other crimes.”

At the actual hearing in the Senate Judicial Proceedings hearing on Tuesday, Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis echoed his colleagues’ sentiments.

“Whether we decriminalize marijuana or not, there will always be drug traffickers bringing it into the United States destined for the streets of Maryland,” said Lewis. “If, in fact, it’s legalized, it will certainly open the doors to these drug traffickers to bring in large shipments, much larger than are being brought in today.”

In a bit of hyperbole that ultimately backfired, Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop testified on Tuesday over 30 deaths had been attributed to marijuana overdoses on the first day Colorado legalized the drug. Pristoop later backed off those comments and apologized, pointing out the data was based on a phony, satirical story and not firm statistics.

“I apologize for the information I provided concerning the deaths,” he said. “I believed the information I obtained was accurate, but I now know the story is nothing more than an urban legend.”

While law enforcement officials have made their position known, the decision will ultimately come down to state lawmakers. On the Lower Shore, Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) said this week he supported the medical marijuana bill last year, but is reserving judgment on legalization or decriminalization until all of the facts and testimony are heard.

“I have to look at it very closely,” he said. “I have some real concerns with legalization, but I haven’t heard the testimony yet because it’s not in my committee. We have to go through the process and see how it fits us and see how it fits Maryland. That’s why we have the table we do in Annapolis to discuss these issues and weigh them from every angle.”

Advocates for legalization point out the wasted time and expense spent in Maryland prosecuting simple possession and recreational use cases. Proponents have said regulating and taxing marijuana could contribute $100 million in revenue to the state. Legalization certainly appears to be gaining favor in the court of public opinion. A recent poll suggests 53 percent of Marylanders support it, while 38 percent are opposed.

“Our experiment with marijuana prohibition has failed,” said Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomer), who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “We got ourselves out of alcohol prohibition by regulating and taxing the product, and we should employ the same exit strategy with marijuana. If we can regulate alcohol, we can regulate marijuana.”