Possession of small amounts of marijuana would be a civil fine instead of a criminal penalty under a bill approved by the Maryland Senate on Tuesday.
The Senate voted 30-16 to replace the criminal charge of possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $100. Ten grams, about a third of one ounce, is equivalent to the weight of about two nickels.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, characterized people with 10 grams or less of marijuana as "small time" possessors and said it was a waste of taxpayer money to prosecute them and put them through the criminal justice system.
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"It is a tremendous waste of resources," Zirkin said.
Opponents questioned whether the bill, if signed into law, would make the job of law enforcement officers more difficult.
Anne Arundel County Republican Sen. Bryan Simonaire questioned whether police officers would have to carry around scales to be able to judge whether someone caught with pot was carrying more or less than 10 grams.
"It's all dependent on weight now. Weight is the key," he said.
Other opponents worried whether the bill sent the wrong message about marijuana possession and questioned why the penalty for holding small amounts of pot would be smaller than that for underage drinking, which is a $500 fine.
The bill passed primarily with Democratic support, but was able to draw the votes of some Republicans.
Among them was Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford and Cecil counties. She said that her husband has cancer and under the measure she would be able to purchase small amounts of marijuana to help with his treatment.
Under current law the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is a criminal charge punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
The measure now goes to the House, where it is expected to face more opposition.
The bill falls short of full legalization of pot and does not make the distinction between possession for medical or recreational use.
Bills currently before the House would create systems to administer medical marijuana in Maryland. Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration recently withdrew its opposition to medical marijuana. In March 8 testimony before a joint meeting of the House Health and Government Operations and Judiciary committees, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Joshua Sharfstein said his department did not oppose a medical marijuana system so long as the governor could halt it if the federal government threatened legal action.