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Maryland General Assembly Decriminalizes Marijuana, Approves Minimum Wage Increase

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ/AP) -- The Maryland General Assembly has given final approval to a minimum wage increase. The state will also decriminalize marijuana. A bill that takes jail time out of the equation for possession of small amounts of weed is headed to the governor's desk.

Political reporter Pat Warren reports some say the bill goes too far, while others say it doesn't go far enough.

Gov. Martin O'Malley says he will sign the bill into law and hopes it allows greater focus on greater threats to public safety.

He released the following statement:

"With more effective policing and more widely available drug treatment, together in Maryland, we have driven violent crime down to its lowest levels in 30 years. This progress has been hard-won and much remains to be done. Recent spikes in homicides and heroin overdose deaths underscore the life-saving urgency of the work before us.

"The General Assembly has decided after much consideration -- and with clear majorities in both Chambers -- to send to my desk a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and I plan to sign it.

"As a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even a second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland. Desuetude is often a precursor of reform.

"As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the Public Will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety. 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. 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."

The General Assembly has stripped jail time out of the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, over the protest of anti-drug advocates.

"When decriminalization happens, more people smoke pot," said Mike Gimble, anti-drug advocate.

Views on the use of marijuana have changed and are reflected in the General Assembly's decision to decriminalize it.

The Senate voted Monday to accept several compromises the House added over the weekend.

On Saturday, the House passed a bill that changes the penalty for possession of 10 grams or less from jail time to a citation and fine. There will be no arrest and no criminal record.

The bill keeps marijuana use illegal but make it akin to a traffic violation. The House opted to require all teen offenders to be evaluated for treatment. It also voted to raise the penalties to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third, up from a maximum fine of $100.

"You're going to allow civil process for people who possess it. And the guy who sells it to 'em, you're still going to call him a distributor and he's going to have a five-year felony on his record. Now that's ridiculous!" said Mike McDermott, (R)-Eastern Shore.

Supporters of the bill agree that sales and other issues still need to be addressed, including pipes and papers.

"The paper that people use to smoke marijuana with, any paraphernalia regarding marijuana, is still illegal, still arrestable, and even though it's a fine, it's a criminal offense," said Baltimore Del. Curt Anderson.

Del. Anderson calls the bill a step toward legalization.

"It would have to be a step that we could take first so we could see if Maryland actually wants to legalize," Anderson said.

Decriminalizing marijuana became an issue for the ACLU based on racial disparities in arrest rates.

"Despite comparable rates of use, African-Americans in our state are overwhelmingly arrested for marijuana possession," said Sarah Love, ACLU.

That motivated members of the Black Caucus to move beyond forming a task force to study marijuana to a vote to decriminalize it.

Delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur sponsored the bill and is in favor of legalizing marijuana.

"People's minds change," Mizeur said. "Ninety percent of Marylanders have been very clear in survey after survey across the state that they support marijuana decriminalization and the time to get it done is now."

Related Story: Lawmakers Reach Compromise On Medical Marijuana 


Meanwhile, the Maryland General Assembly has approved incremental increases to the minimum wage over several years.

The House of Delegates voted 87-47 Monday to give final approval to increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8 in January.

It would rise to $8.25 in July 2015; $8.75 in July 2016; $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018.

The vote sends the bill to O'Malley, who made the measure a priority this legislative session.

He released this statement:

"My central focus as Governor of Maryland has been to strengthen and grow the ranks of our ever more diverse and upwardly mobile middle class. That's why we invested record amounts in our #1-ranked public schools, why we did more than any other state in the nation to hold down the cost of college, why we expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, why we chose to invest more in putting people to work rebuilding our transportation infrastructure, and why we are the only state in the nation that's passed a living wage law.

"This year, we are building on this record of strengthening the middle class by raising Maryland's minimum wage to $10.10. We worked hard to bring people together and forge the consensus necessary to make this important progress possible. I commend the General Assembly for giving so many Maryland families the raise they deserve."

Supporters say the increase will provide more money for people to spend to help boost the economy. But opponents contend it will hurt businesses and lead to job losses.

The measure includes a provision to keep the salaries of community service providers who work with the developmentally disabled above minimum wage.

Lawmakers have until midnight to pass any legislation they want to see take effect this year.  Any bill that does not do that is considered dead.

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

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