Monday, March 25, 2013

Maryland Senate Votes to Decriminalize Pot Possession While House Approves Medical Marijuana // ROLL CALL ANALYSIS

UPDATE: Maryland Juice just received the following legislative tidbit from a reader on Facebook encouraging Marylanders to contact Delegate Joe Vallario and urge him to stop holding up marijuana decriminalization: or (410) 841-3488.
READER: Students for Sensible Drug Policy sent out an email blast calling on its MD members to "Urge Chairman Vallario to pass marijuana decriminalization in Maryland" etc. with some indication that he as the committee chairman "has been the main obstacle to passing positive marijuana legislation in Maryland." Let's hope this common sense reform makes it through!

Reforms to Maryland's draconian laws regarding marijuana are finally advancing in the State Senate and House of Delegates. After years of severe lag-time, Maryland Democrats have finally caught on that the world is moving on after blindly experimenting with the last generation's failed "War on Drugs."

Maryland currently spends roughly $226 million a year on marijuana enforcement -- with little meaningful impact on the public's use of recreational drugs.  Meanwhile, young Marylanders and people of color are arbitrarily and disproportionately welcomed into the criminal justice system, subjecting them to potential ineligibility for student loans and persistent problems finding employment.

MARYLAND SENATE APPROVES MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION - Last week the Maryland Senate approved a bill to eliminate the possibility of jail terms for "de minimis" marijuana possession (aka a few joints or less). A bill sponsored by Senator Bobby Zirkin proposes to reduce the penalty for minor pot possession to no more than a $100 fine with no jail time at all. The bill was approved by a vote of 30-16 in a surprisingly smooth vote, and The Washington Post editorial board recently encouraged the House of Delegates to join the Senate in decriminalizing pot (excerpt below):
WASHINGTON POST: The Maryland Senate’s vote to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana would not, as some critics warn, make it okay to use the drug. Such use would still be illegal, but it would be a civil offense, punishable by fines rather than imprisonment. Not only would this save law enforcement valuable resources but also prevent the lives of many young people from being ruined. We hope the House of Delegates follows the Senate’s lead and that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signs this sensible measure into law....
Currently Maryland law allows for up to a shocking 90 days in prison and a $500 fine for possession of minor amounts of pot. But despite the common-sense nature of this "decriminalization" law, the vote to start ending the War on Drugs in Maryland revealed interesting divisions between lawmakers. You can see the full roll call online, but below Maryland Juice highlights a few notable tidbits.

NINE SENATE DEMOCRATS VOTED TO MAINTAIN 90 DAY JAIL TERMS FOR MARIJUANA - The vast majority of Senate Democrats voted to eliminate the possibility of 90 day jail terms for residents caught with small amounts of marijuana.  Democratic leaders --  including Senate President Mike Miller -- voted for marijuana decriminalization, and only nine of Maryland's thirty-five Democratic Senators voted to support continued incarceration of people caught with pot. But surprisingly, two of the "no" votes came from Senators Nancy King and Roger Manno, who represent liberal Montgomery County. Below you can see the nine Democratic Senators who voted against peeling back the War on Drugs in Maryland:
  1. John Astle (Anne Arundel County)
  2. Ed Degrange (Anne Arundel County)
  3. Roy Dyson (Calvert, Charles & St. Mary's Counties)
  4. Nancy King (Montgomery County)
  5. Katherine Klausmeier (Baltimore County)
  6. Roger Manno (Montgomery County)
  7. Jim Mathias (Somerset, Wicomico & Worcester Counties)
  8. Jim Robey (Howard County)
  9. Norm Stone (Baltimore County)

SENATOR ROGER MANNO EXPLAINS VOTE TO MAINTAIN POSSIBILITY OF JAIL FOR POT POSSESSION - Interestingly, shortly after the historic marijuana reform vote, Senator Roger Manno explained to Maryland Juice why he voted to maintain possible 90 day jail terms for minor pot possession. Manno stated that he thought the War on Drugs was a failure but that it was arbitrary to only roll back penalties on marijuana. I'm still a little confused by this argument, but if drug reform advocates take Senator Manno at his word, that means he should be approached to sponsor an even larger unraveling of the War on Drugs in Maryland  -- perhaps a bill that comprehensively audits and revisits jail terms assigned to all cases of simple possession?

NEARLY 50% OF REPUBLICAN SENATORS VOTED AGAINST 90 DAY JAIL TERMS FOR POT - While some Democrats struggled to stay on top of shifting public sentiment on marijuana, the Republicans are beginning to catch on. Notably, five out of twelve Republican Senators (or nearly 50%) voted to eliminate the threat of 90 day jail terms for minor pot possession:
  1. David Brinkley (Carroll & Frederick Counties)
  2. Richard Colburn (Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot & Wicomico Counties)
  3. Nancy Jacobs (Cecil & Harford Counties)
  4. Alan Kittleman (Carroll & Howard Counties)
  5. Ed Reilly (Anne Arundel County)

MEANWHILE, MD SENATE VOTES TO MAKE POSSESSION OF SYNTHETIC MARIJUANA PUNISHABLE BY FOUR YEARS IN JAIL - In one of the signs of how dysfunctional and irrational drug policy is in America, only days after the Maryland Senate voted overwhelmingly to decriminalize pot possession -- Senators also voted unanimously to make possession of synthetic marijuana punishable by up to four years in prison. Last week, Maryland Senators voted to add synthetic marijuana to the state's list of "Schedule I" substances -- making simple possession a crime that could land you in jail for years. This may have been a pro-forma step to conform Maryland's criminal code with the Federal Schedule I, but we are already beginning to move away from compliance with Barack Obama's broken campaign promises on drug reform. One step forward, two steps back on ending the failed War on Drugs in Maryland? Oy!

MARYLAND HOUSE FINALLY APPROVES MODEST MEDICAL MARIJUANA LAW - While the Maryland Senate was busy decriminalizing possession of minor amounts of pot, the House of Delegates was debating whether to allow medical marijuana in Maryland. But today they finally voted to approve a modest program to allow distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. The medical marijuana bill passed by a whopping margin in a 108 to 28 vote. The Capital Gazette reported on the break in the logjam (excerpt below):
CAPITAL GAZETTE: The House of Delegates passed a bill Monday to allow a small number of academic medical centers to distribute marijuana to patients beginning in 2016. Delegates voted 108-28 to pass House Bill 1101, introduced by Del. Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County. The bill would create a commission through which academic medical research centers could apply to operate medical marijuana programs. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it could get a hearing as soon as this week....

With just 15 days left in the General Assembly's 90-day session, marijuana will be an important issue in both chambers. On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up Senate Bill 297, which would decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana. The Senate passed that bill on March 19....

THERE'S DEFINITELY SOMETHING IN THE AIR - Most Americans consider the War on Drugs a policy failure, and Maryland Juice has been pointing out for months that a super-majority of Democrats and liberals nationally now support full-on taxation and regulation of pot (even Senate President Mike Miller). Indeed, a 2012 Huffington Post/YouGov opinion survey confirmed the clear shift in attitudes:
HUFFINGTON POST: A solid majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, either with or without taxes and regulations similar to those imposed on alcoholic beverages, according to a new survey conducted by YouGov for The Huffington Post.

The poll found that 51 percent of adults support legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.... Only 26 percent of respondents said that marijuana should not be legalized.... Those under age 29 and between ages 45 and 64 were most likely to support legalization pure and simple...
The poll found more variation among people of different political parties. Sixty-four percent of Democrats ...  said they supported legalization with taxes and regulations. Overall, opposition was highest among Republicans, but even so, more Republicans favored one of the two legalization options (47 percent) than opposed legalization entirely (44 percent).

A 2011 Gallup poll also verified new majority support for marijuana reform and noted that a whopping 69% of liberals support the legalization effort. Check out a few summary tables below:

Are Maryland politicians figuring out that public sentiment has changed? More on the War on Drugs soon!

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