As the Maryland Senate voted Tuesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, advocates for legalizing the drug saw an opening move in a multiyear effort to make it completely legal.
"I think the taboo has been lifted on talking about marijuana in Maryland," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced a separate bill that would legalize marijuana, regulate it, and tax it like alcohol. He said he doesn't expect it to pass this year.
"All we want to do is start the conversation," Anderson said. "It's not as dangerous a drug as cigarettes, which can kill you. It's not as dangerous as a drunk driver."
While their end goal likely is long off, advocates for legalizing marijuana said the political climate is tilting in their favor -- both in Maryland and across the country.
This year Gov. Martin O'Malley reversed his stance on medical marijuana and, through his health secretary, endorsed a limited plan for academic centers to make it available. Under the bill the Senate passed 30-16 Tuesday, possessing a few marijuana joints would still break the law, but it wouldn't carry a jail term.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted for the bill, has said he personally favors legalization.
The decriminalization measure now moves to the House of Delegates, where proponents said it will be a tougher sell.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he doesn't like the idea of diminishing the consequences for possessing pot. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat, said the committee hasn't heard all the arguments yet, but "it sends a bad message to the kids."
Vallario's committee held a hearing Tuesday on Anderson's bill to legalize marijuana, drawing a crowd that included supporters from state chapters of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, a coalition of law enforcement groups and national advocates who have worked to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington.
"In a lot of other states, politicians are behind the people," said Dan Riffle, with the Marijuana Policy Project. "In Maryland, politicians seem to get it."
Maryland is among nine states currently considering measures to ease the laws on marijuana, according to Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"I think the fulcrum on all of this rests on the baby boomers," said St. Pierre, who has been working on marijuana issues for two decades. Although he testified Tuesday at the hearing on Anderson's bill, he said he doesn't see Maryland on the precipice of legalizing pot.
"Without a public discussion, we make no progress," he said. "All of this is a precursor to any legislation moving."
Del. Susan McComas, a Republican from Harford County, offered a concern echoed by some other lawmakers: "Won't we increase the use of harder drugs by saying this gateway drug is OK?"
The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and the Maryland Sheriff's Association gave written testimony pointing out marijuana possession is still a federal crime.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the Senate measure, said he doesn't have a position on legalizing pot. But he thinks drug use is a public health concern, not something that should clog up the judicial system and Maryland jails.
"There's no message here that somehow people should be smoking marijuana. That's not the point," he said. Zirkin persuaded his colleagues that the threat of jail time has not had an effect on marijuana usage, and prosecuting the small-possession cases is a waste of resources.
"Someone could have a quart of tequila, and that is perfectly legal, but one marijuana cigarette and someone goes to jail?" Zirkin asked. "It doesn't make sense."