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Senate Passes Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland Senate has overwhelmingly passed a measure reducing the penalty for marijuana possession to a $100 fine.

The next step likely will depend on the House Judiciary Committee, which chose to let a similar bill lapse last year instead of advancing it to the House floor.

The committee just took up a marijuana decriminalization matter Thursday afternoon, putting its timetable several weeks behind that of the Senate. Several committee members showed clear skepticism toward any loosening of marijuana restrictions as they questioned witnesses.

The Senate approved Sen. Robert Zirkin’s bill 36-8 Friday afternoon after relatively little debate.

Sen. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said he started this session planning to speak against the bill. He asked his staff to find data showing teenagers’ marijuana use has shot up in states that have decriminalized the drug.

But when Shank read the studies himself, they surprised him. These states have consistently seen marijuana use stay the same or even decrease, he said.

He gradually decided to approve the measure.

“Nobody in this room wants an increased use of any drugs,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

Zirkin believes the bill will free up police for patrol work, as they won’t be tied up in marijuana-related court cases.

Some 18 other states treat marijuana possession as a civil offense, with no criminal penalties. Eleven more are considering bills similar to Zirkin’s, according to a report from the Marijuana Policy Project. The Washington, D.C., council voted to decriminalize pot possession this year, and New Hampshire’s House of Representatives approved a similar measure Wednesday.

But Zirkin’s bill would keep criminal penalties intact for possession of more than 10 grams — an unusually low threshold, he said.

Sen. Bryan Simonaire, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, the most vocal opponent Friday, said the bill nevertheless sends the “wrong message” to teens.

He mentioned Nancy Reagan’s 1980s “Just Say No” campaign.

“Probably in a year or so, we will say, `Just do it,’ ” Simonaire said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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