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Fight To Decriminalize Marijuana Continues In Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, MD. (WJZ) -- Maryland state lawmakers aren't only debating making marijuana available for medical reasons. Now they're looking at lowering the penalties for smoking it.

Alex DeMetrick reports a bill would remove the threat of jail time.

Smoking marijuana for the sole purpose of getting high comes with legal risks. Get caught with even a small amount of pot and arrest is a very real possibility.

"We make about 25,000 arrests every year in Maryland. So that's about 50,000 hours of police work that are being spent hauling around people for possession of a substance that's safer than alcohol," said Dan Riffle, Marijuana Policy Project.

Dan Riffle is a former prosecutor and backer of a bill to change that. It would reduce the penalty for possessing a third of an ounce or less of marijuana, making it a civil complaint instead of criminal.

That would mean no jail time for a small amount, and a fine no larger than $100.

"We've been enforcing this for so long, how are we going to change that? Are we going to say it's OK? What message are we sending to our children?" said Chief Steve Walker, Edmonston Police Department.

Police from different agencies were among those at a House Judiciary hearing on the bill. So were supporters like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"No one has ever died smoking marijuana. No one has ever overdosed," said Judy Pentz, Md. NORML.

But by reducing penalties, opponents to the bill are worried it will only make access to marijuana easier.

"Do you really want your kids growing up now, where they can just as easily get marijuana as they're now able to get alcohol and tobacco? Because that's where we're going," said Mike Gimbel, drug counselor.

"I'm a former prosecutor, and in my experience, I just didn't find marijuana prohibition was effective at keeping marijuana away from kids, at keeping marijuana away from anybody," said Riffle.

Like new laws in Colorado and Washington state, it would be smoke it if you got it, just don't get caught with a lot of it.

The Maryland Senate has already approved a bill to lower penalties. If the House agrees, it goes to Governor O'Malley, who has endorsed marijuana for medical use but has not stated a position on decriminalization.

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