Maryland legislature approves bill easing marijuana penalties

Marijuana plants are displayed for sale at Canna Pi medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, November 27, 2012. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante (Reuters)

(Reuters) - The Democratic-controlled Maryland legislature on Monday approved a measure to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, joining a nationwide trend to ease penalties for pot. The state Senate approved the measure making possession of up to 10 grams, or about a third of an ounce, of marijuana a civil offense. Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley said he would sign it. Supporters said decriminalization was an issue of justice since blacks were far more likely than people of other races to be arrested and charged for marijuana possession. The Senate had first passed a measure last month making possession of marijuana a civil instead of a criminal offense and reducing the penalty to a $100 civil fine instead of a 90-day sentence and $500 fine. The bill, however, ran into opposition in the lower chamber. The House of Delegates' Judiciary Committee struck it down and passed a measure setting up a task force to study the issue. But the House reworked the bill, including stiffening penalties for repeat offenders. The chamber passed it on Saturday and sent it back to the Senate. Twenty states, along with the District of Columbia, allow marijuana use as treatment for various health ailments. Washington and Colorado permit cannabis for recreational use. While marijuana is illegal under federal law, 15 states, the District of Columbia and a handful of cities have removed the threat of arrest for possession of small amounts of it. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Mohammad Zargham)