Maryland has become the 16th state in the country to decriminalize the possession of marijuana after lawmakers approved a bill that will eliminate the threat of jail time for citizens carrying small amounts of the substance. Gov. Martin O’Malley, who previously expressed concern over decriminalizing the Schedule I controlled substance over a fear of it undermining public safety, agreed to sign the bill at Monday’s General Assembly meeting.  

“With more effective policing and more widely available drug treatment, together in Maryland, we have driven violent crime down to its lowest levels in 30 years,” Gov. O’Malley said in a statement. “This progress has been hard-won and much remains to be done. Recent spikes in homicides and heroin overdose deaths underscore the life-saving urgency of the work before us.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.”

According to the Possession of Marijuana – Civil Offense (SB 364) bill, individuals possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana will be subject to a civil penalty rather than a criminal offense.  Instead of a 90-day jail sentence, those caught with small amounts of marijuana will be ordered to pay a $100 civil fine for their first offense, $250 for their second offense and $500 for their third offense, CBS Baltimore reported.  State legislatures are also in the process of revising Maryland’s medical marijuana law. If approved, patients would be allowed to receive medical marijuana from state-approved dispensaries so long as they’re recommended by a licensed physician.

“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. 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.”

Marijuana reform advocacy group, NORML, estimates that over 30 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area where marijuana has been decriminalized. Areas where the substance is not decriminalized costs taxpayers upward of $10 billion and jails 658,231 individuals each year due to marijuana possession. Government surveys have revealed that 25 million Americans say they have smoked marijuana in the past year, while over 14 million say they do so on a regular basis. On top of the 15 states where marijuana is currently decriminalized, 20 states have approved laws permitting the use of medical marijuana.