BY REED SHELTON
Maryland’s General Assembly on Jan. 21 successfully overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of 2015 legislation that decriminalized the possession of marijuana paraphernalia, but the debate has continued on.
The bill, SB 517, introduced by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) last year, removed criminal penalties for the possession of smoking devices such as pipes and rolling papers. It was crafted to address a perceived inconsistency in a 2014 law signed by former Gov. Martin O’Malley that decriminalized less than 10 grams of the drug.
Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery County) compared marijuana and its associated paraphernalia with Maryland blue crabs and Old Bay seasoning.
“Imagine that they were both illegal, and suddenly we allowed people to eat Maryland blue crabs, but we still kept the Old Bay illegal. It would be inconceivable,” Kaiser said.
The veto was overturned in the Democrat-controlled Maryland Senate and House 29-17 and 86-55, respectively.
The bill also reclassified the use or possession of marijuana in in a public place as a civil, rather than a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of no more than $500.
Republican Gov. Hogan, in his veto letter to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert, Charles, and Prince George’s Counties), asserted that passage of the bill would create “legal uncertainties including the elimination of criminal sanctions for the use of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle or in a public setting.”
Should it pass, Hogan wrote, “state and local law enforcement would be left with no authority to make a traffic stop if they see someone smoking marijuana while driving.”
Maryland is among 19 other states, plus Washington, D.C, to decriminalize or outright legalize the drug.
Adam Hoffman, associate professor and chair of the political science department at Salisbury University, says that legislation such as this comes as no surprise in a traditionally Democrat-controlled state like Maryland.
“You have the national trend (towards decriminalization), and you have – the fact is that the Baltimore City delegation in the state legislature is an incredibly powerful force, and the great majority of them have been pushing this for a while,” Hoffman said. “I think it was only a matter of time before Maryland started going in this direction considering how liberal and ‘blue’ we are.”
In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a Democrat, supported Gov. Hogan’s stance. He said that while SB 517 addressed the inconsistency associated with paraphernalia, it would then allow smoking in public or while driving, for which the state would no longer criminalize.
“Even in states that have legalized marijuana, most make it a crime to smoke in public,” he said. “All have made it a crime to consume marijuana while driving. This is all we are asking. It just makes sense. We should protect our children and the people on the roads of this state as we accept the changing times.”
SU junior Garrett Shull expressed trepidation with the idea of decriminalization and the eventual possibility of full legalization such as what states like Colorado and Washington have passed.
“I don’t have as much of a problem with its medical use, and I’ve seen a lot of studies where it’s helped a lot of people with chronic problems,” Shull said. “But while it’s more mild than alcohol, if we’re going to move forward with legalization than I still think that we really need to examine whether it’s totally safe and at what level it becomes unsafe.”