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The Maryland Senate has approved the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. The bill now goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who says he'll sign it after months of being evasive on the topic.
"There are very few people if any who have been sentenced to prison for the possession of marijuana on their first offense, or second offense, or even third offense," O'Malley said. "So perhaps the acknowledgement of this reality will allow us to better focus our efforts on the bigger threats to human life and public safety."
But O'Malley drew the line at decriminalization.
"I still don't support Maryland being one of those states being a laboratory for legalization of marijuana," he said.
The legislation would impose civil fines on those caught with 10 grams or less of marijuana, with escalating fines for repeat offenders and court-ordered drug assessments for those caught a third time. The D.C. Council passed a similar bill earlier this year.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) is the sponsor of the decriminalization bill, and he says he is overjoyed that the House approved it over the weekend after it appeared they would form a task force to study decriminalization instead.
"It's an inconvenient fact for opponents of this, but the fact is that in the 17-18 states that have this, there has been no increase in drug use whatsoever. Not marijuana. Not any other drug," Zirkin said.
The governor will also be getting a bill that expands the state's medical marijuana program. Up to 15 growers will be licensed starting later this year with the possibility of more in coming years. Montgomery County Democrat Jamie Raskin sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
"This is an awesome victory for thousands of sick people. People with AIDS, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorder. There are lots of Marylander for whom medical marijuana is a lifeline," Zirkin said.
Earlier today, the House of Delegates also gave final approval to a bill raising the minimum wage in Maryland to $10.10 per hour by the year 2018, despite calls from Republicans like Neil Parrott of western Maryland, who argues the hike will lead to layoffs.
"I encourage us all to vote no on this bill," Parrott said. "This is the Work-to-Welfare [sic] act of 2014."
Matthew Hanson of the group Raise Maryland calls the approval a victory for state workers, even though the hike is spread out over more years than initially proposed.
"I think that this is such a huge victory for us. We have come so far," Hanson says. "Our bill died in committee last year [by of a vote of] 8 to 3. And this year it passed both chambers by an overwhelming majority."
Lawmakers were also able to pass Jake's Law — a bill that would increase the penalties for anyone who's using a cell phone with their hands at the time of a crash that causes serious injury or death. Susan Yum, the mother of 5-year-old Jake Owen, who was killed in a crash more than two years ago when a driver was talking on a cell phone, said she's happy with what the General Assembly approved.
"Obviously, nothing is going to bring Jake back," she said. "But what we hope is that it will save lives and prevent other families from having to go through what we did."
The bill covers all handheld use of a cell phone, including texting, talking, internet surfing, and social media updates. Earlier versions did not.
All these bills now head to the governor's desk to be signed.