Marijuana policies that seek to criminalize casual smokers and imprison medical consumers are falling like slow-moving dominoes across the country. And while no one state has yet taken the major move towards legalization like Washington and Colorado, several are taking baby steps in that direction. For Maryland and New Hampshire, the next baby-step is in decriminalizing possession.
Decriminalization, contrary to what many people would like to believe, is not the same as legalization. Decriminalization means an act that was formerly classified as a crime is now going to be classified as an infraction, like a parking ticket. In New Hampshire and Maryland, decriminalization is becoming a reality.
For Maryland, where blacks are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession (despite having similar marijuana-usage rates) that change can’t come fast enough.
There, a senate committee recently approved a bill that will reduce penalties for possession of up to 10 grams of pot from a misdemeanor criminal offense (where it currently stands) to an infraction carrying only a $100 civil fine. The Maryland state senate is expected to pass the measure, as they approved a similar one last year that didn’t quite make it into law before the end of session.
In all, Maryland is set to become the 17th state to decriminalize marijuana. Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley released a statement on Monday, announcing that he will sign marijuana-decriminalizing legislation. Governor O’Malley said that the decriminalization bill had majority support in the state, which aligns with AlterNet reporting that some 68% of Maryland voters approve of decriminalization. (Isn’t it nice when lawmaker decisions jibe with voter opinions?)
“I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgement of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health,” he said in the statement. “Such an acknowledgment in law might even lead to a greater focus on far more serious threats to public safety and the lives of our citizens.”
In New Hampshire, a similar bill is making headway. There, the state’s House of Representatives passed a decriminalization proposal recently. Like Maryland, the bill is expected to be made law.
“Every other state in New England has ended the needless and antiquated practice of criminalizing people for marijuana possession,” said Matt Simon, from the Marijuana Policy Project, which is supporting the bill. “It’s time for New Hampshire to join them and adopt a more sensible marijuana policy.”
Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana, and 12 more are considering bills to do so. While these laws don’t necessarily give people permission to have marijuana, they do make the penalties for being caught with it far more tolerable and proportionate to the “crime.”