The Maryland Senate gave final approval Monday to a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote was 34-8, according to The Washington Post.
Senate Bill 364 will make possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense—rather than a criminal one—punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, up to $250 for a second offense and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. Third-time offenders and individuals under 21 years of age will be required to have a clinical assessment for substance abuse and to undergo a drug education program.
Next, the bill heads to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who said he would sign it into law.
"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," O'Malley said in a prepared statement just before 5 p.m. Monday.
"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," O'Malley said. "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."
Once the bill is signed, the law takes effect Oct. 1, 2014.
Marijuana advocates applauded the passage of the bill by the Senate and called for further reform in the next session of the Maryland General Assembly.
"This measure will prevent tens of thousands of Marylanders from facing life-altering criminal penalties simply for possessing a less harmful substance than alcohol," the Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland said in a prepared statement. "Most Marylanders, like most Americans, believe it is time move beyond the failed policy of marijuana prohibition and adopt a more sensible approach."
The coalition said that move was "a step in the right direction" but more work was needed to regulate what would still be an underground market.
"It appears legislators are quickly coming to recognize the benefits of regulating and taxing marijuana," the coalition stated, "and we hope they will give strong consideration to taking that step next year."
Maryland will become one of more than a dozen states to decriminalize marijuana possession. Other states that have decriminalized it include Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Mayor Vincent Gray of Washington, D.C., also signed a bill on March 31 that makes marijuana possession of up to one ounce, or 28 grams, a civil offense in the district punishable by a $25 fine, Reuters reported.