Maryland Dems back decriminalizing pot

A pair of Maryland's powerful House Democrats said Tuesday they support the state's move to decriminalize marijuana.

Reps. Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen said the proposal, which Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has said he will sign, will go a long way toward fixing the state's crowded prisons.

"I think there's a growing bipartisan consensus that we have way too many people in prison for nonviolent offenses, including the kind of issues that this bill [addresses]," Van Hollen said.

"I agree with that," Hoyer said.

Hoyer's comments were a shift from just a few months ago, when the veteran lawmaker said he was opposed to any state move toward legalizing marijuana.

"I talked to people who deal with drug abuse issues, with rehabilitation issues, I became convinced that marijuana was, in fact, a threshold [sic] drug and that it would lead to the use of harder, very harmful drugs," Hoyer said on an interview with C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program in January.

On Tuesday, Hoyer softened that position, noting the popularity of marijuana and strongly suggesting that he himself has tried the drug.

"The Legislature passed it ... and it's clear that we have an awful lot of people in our prisons who are suffering from a criminal conviction [who] have done things that — I'm not going to ask for a show of hands — if I did, I could raise my hand," he said.

Hoyer acknowledged his early opposition to the decriminalization effort, "mainly because I've talked to a lot of ... drug rehab people and they say it's a gateway drug and therefore we don't think it's useful.

"But having said that," he added, "I certainly wouldn't criticize the governor for signing the bill."

Under Maryland's decriminalization proposal, those caught in possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana would no longer face misdemeanor charges and jail time, but instead would face civil fines similar to parking violations.

The measure passed Maryland's Senate on Monday, and O'Malley said Monday that he would sign it into law.

Like Hoyer, O'Malley once opposed such laws, but said he's had a change of heart.

"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 in a statement. "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," he added.