Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will sign legislation making Maryland the 17th state to decriminalize small possessions of marijuana.

Violent crime is at its lowest in Maryland in 30 years, and the governor said the new law would allow law enforcement officials to keep their focus on more serious crimes. The plan was announced on Monday via the governor’s website:

“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. 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.

As a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even a second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland. Desuetude is often a precursor of reform.

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 decriminalization eliminates criminal penalties, such as extended prison time, for possession of a limited amount of the drug.

Decriminalization laws vary from state to state, but they typically apply to anyone possessing a small amount of marijuana. Whether a small amount means 25 grams or 1 ounce depends on the state’s laws.

This doesn’t mean that possessing marijuana is legal in places where it’s decriminalized. Those caught possessing or selling an amount within decriminalized limits are still fined, usually a few hundred dollars. States with stricter decriminalization laws also attach some jail time, particularly to trafficking.

And those caught with large amounts of marijuana, even in places where the drug is decriminalized, still face criminal penalties.

Marijuana is currently decriminalized in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It is fully legal in Colorado and Washington.

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