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Assembly moves to decriminalize marijuana

The General Assembly moved Saturday to dramatically change Maryland's drug laws as the House of Delegates joined the Senate in voting to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense punishable only by a fine.

The House voted 78-55 to approve a measure substantially similar to the decriminalization bill overwhelmingly passed by the Senate last month. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said his chamber would agree to the House's relatively minor changes and send the bill to Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Meanwhile, key lawmakers also have reached a tentative compromise on how to revamp the state's medical marijuana law to make sure patients can get the drug. That measure is also expected to receive final approval before the Assembly adjourns at midnight Monday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who came into the session a skeptic about treating marijuana possession as a civil offense, cast his vote for decriminalization.

"The fact of the matter is a lot of people utilize this, and it has not been effective putting them in jail and throwing away the key," he said.

The House vote came on a busy Saturday as both chambers scrambled to resolve the remaining sticky issues facing the legislature before Monday night. The tally split largely along party lines, with three Republicans joining 75 Democrats in supporting the measure. Twenty Democrats and 35 Republicans voted no.

O'Malley, like Busch, has long had reservations about more lenient marijuana laws, but the governor has said he will keep an open mind in reviewing the bill.

If O'Malley signs the measure, Maryland would become the 18th state to stop treating simple possession as a criminal offense, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Two of them, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the regulated sale of the drug for recreational use.

The Maryland decriminalization legislation defines a small amount as 10 grams, a smaller amount than in most states.

The House acted on marijuana after the Judiciary Committee voted 13-8 earlier in the day to reverse its previous decision to approve only setting up a task force to study changes to marijuana laws.

The committee's reconsideration was the result of negotiations between Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a proponent of the task force approach, and a group of his fellow Democrats who want to stop treating marijuana possession as a crime. They include members of the Legislative Black Caucus who point to racial disparities in the way marijuana laws have been enforced.

The resulting bargain gave decriminalization proponents most of what they wanted. Where marijuana possession is currently treated as a misdemeanor that carries a maximum 90-day jail term, the legislation would change it to a civil offense for adults, punishable by escalating fines. Minors caught with the drug would continue to be handled by the juvenile justice system.

The House kept the Senate's $100 fine for a first offense but increased the penalties for subsequent violations to $250 for a second and $500 for a third. For a first or second offense, a violator older than 21 would be able to prepay the fine by mail, but a three-time loser would have to go to court. If convicted, the judge would have to order the defendant into an education or treatment program.

The House took a stricter approach for adults who aren't yet 21 because of concerns about the impact of marijuana on developing brains. The bill approved Saturday would require that people caught with pot when they are 18 to 20 years old be summoned to court and referred to drug treatment or education. In some cases that would involve watching a video about the dangers of taking drugs.

The House and Senate agreed that people found guilty of marijuana possession should not have criminal convictions on their record. Both versions say citations for possession will not be part of the public record and will not be posted on the Maryland Judicial website along with other offenses.

The bill's approval came after an emotional debate in which opponents accused decriminalization supporters of exposing young people to the dangers of drug addiction.

Del. Michael A. McDermott, an Eastern Shore Republican, charged that the bill represented "surrender."

"There's no turning back from the generation of young people you're going to leave behind because you said it's OK," he said.

Some proponents said they considered the measure a civil rights issue because of the impact of marijuana arrests on the future prospects of young African-Americans.

"We are sending a message we aren't going to allow small amounts of marijuana possession to ruin the lives of young people," said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell, a Baltimore Democrat who took a leading role in the negotiations.

Four members of the black caucus broke with the group, however, arguing that more lenient treatment was doing African-American youth no favors.

"The better solution is to obey the law," the retiring Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, thundered in what could be his final floor speech.

While he didn't speak and let the bill out of his committee, Vallario was a no on the final vote.

On medical marijuana, both chambers have approved bills to expand access to the drug for patients, but disagreed about how to get a medical marijuana industry off the ground.

Under a compromise reached between House sponsors and a Senate medical marijuana work group, only 15 growers would get licenses in the first year, but the state's medical marijuana commission could decide to allow more. Growers would be allowed to distribute the drug through dispensaries, but other properly licensed businesses could set up shop as dispensaries as well.

Lawmakers first created a medical marijuana program last year, but it relied on academic centers to distribute the drug — and none volunteered to participate. This year's bill would allow patients to get a prescription from specially licensed physicians and then fill it at dispensaries across the state.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, a candidate for governor who sponsored the House version of a decriminalization bill, said it was "gratifying to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat."

"We turned the page today on Maryland's outdated marijuana prohibition laws and sent a strong message that our war on drugs has been a failure," she said.

Mizeur, one of the delegates who met with Vallario, helped make marijuana an issue in the race with her proposal to legalize and regulate the sale of the drug. Neither of her Democratic rivals, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, would go that far, but both came out for decriminalization.

Miller said he was not surprised by Busch's change of heart. He said pro-decriminalization voices had been "shut down" in the House last year and would not be denied again.

"You can only be speaker or president of the Senate as long as the troops support you. And he saw the troops going the other way, and he told the chairman, 'We need to go the other way,'" Miller said.

The Senate president is a supporter of full legalization, a step the House refused to back this year. Miller predicted continued progress toward that goal.

"Eventually I think the whole country is going to be where Colorado is, but it's going to be a long time from now," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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