Democrat Governor Martin O’Malley this week signed legislation significantly reforming Maryland’s cannabis laws.
 
Senate Bill 364 decriminalizes the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana by adults. The new law, which reclassifies minor marijuana possession offenses as civil offenses rather than as criminal misdemeanors, takes effect on October 1, 2014. When it does, Maryland will become the 17th state to depenalize minor marijuana possession offenses to a non-arrestable offense.
 
For many Marylanders, this change cannot come soon enough. Police in few areas of the country arrest minor pot offenders as vigorously as do cops in the Old Line State. According to a 2013 ACLU report, only two states in 2010 -- New York and Nebraska -- made more marijuana possession arrest per capita than did Maryland. And only six states in 2010 -- New York, Texas, Florida, California (which enacted decriminalization in 2011), Illinois, and Georgia -- made more overall pot possession arrests. 
 
Those arrested for possession in Maryland presently face arrest, up to 90 days in jail, a $500 fine, and a criminal record. After October 1, however, these offenses are punishable by a civil fine only (up to $100 fine for first-time offenders, up to $250 for second-time offenders) -- no arrest and no criminal record. Those under the age of 21 found in possession of pot will also have to attend a drug education class.
 
Governor O’Malley also signed legislation, House Bill 881, providing for the state-licensed production and dispensing of marijuana to qualified patients who possess a written certification from their physician. Maryland is the 21st state to allow for the doctor-recommended access to cannabis therapy. 
 
House Bill 881 takes effect on June 1, 2014, at which time the state shall establish a commission to draft rules and regulations overseeing pot production and distribution. As in several other east coast medical marijuana states (e.g., Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont), the new law does not allow patients to grow their own supply of medicine. Rather, qualifying patients must procure cannabis from a state-licensed dispensary -- establishments that must, in turn, obtain their supply of medicinal marijuana from one of 15 licensed producers. State regulators may issue licenses for additional producers beginning June 1, 2016.
 
Passage of HB 881 marks the fourth time since 2003 that Maryland lawmakers have enacted legislation to address patients’ use of medicinal cannabis. In 2003, lawmakers enacted provisions that mandated judges in criminal courts to consider a defendant's use of medical marijuana as a mitigating factor in a marijuana-related state prosecution (under this act, patients were still arrested and subjected to a criminal trial). In 2011, lawmakers amended the state’s affirmative defense law so that citizens who successfully raised it in court would no longer face any associated fines or criminal penalties. Last year, lawmakers enacted legislation seeking to allow for the use of cannabis at state teaching hospitals. That plan proved unworkable, however, when hospitals refused to participate in the program.
 
Both of this week’s changes in law are widely popular among Maryland voters. According to a March 2014 statewide Goucher poll, only seven percent of Marylanders endorse jail time as a penalty for those possessing small quantities of pot, while a whopping 90 percent of respondents support permitting cannabis therapy when it is authorized by a physician.