The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation Wednesday that would cut the penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in a way that curtails the right to an initial jury trial on the charges.

By a 16-4 vote, members said, the panel gave its OK to Del. Luke Clippingers's bill setting the maximum penalty for possesssion of 7 grams or less of marijuana at 90 days and a $500 fine. Previously those convicted of the charge could have been given up to a year in jail.

With a potential penalty of more than 90 days, defendants were entitled to a jury trial in Circuit Court  -- an option may have taken.  Under the legislation, defendants would initially be  tried before a District Court judge but would retain the right to appeal to the Circuit Court.

Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, said the bill had the backing of state's attorneys. He said prosecutors believed that by reducing the number of jury trials, the bill would let them concentrate their efforts on more serious crimes.

The bill now goes to the House floor, where it could be debated as early as Thursday. Action on a similar bill is pending in the Senate.