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Maryland House rejects effort to strengthen penalty for marijuana use

The House rejected an effort to to make public use of marijuana a misdemeanor.

The House of Delegates turned back a Republican-led effort Wednesday to stiffen a bill that would make it a criminal offense to smoke marijuana in a vehicle.

Following lively debate, the House voted 79-53 to reject an amendment that would make it a criminal misdemeanor to smoke marijuana on the Ocean City Boardwalk, in a state park or in other public spaces.

The original bill would have dealt with vehicles and public space issues, but the language on public space was stripped out by the House Judiciary Committee.

The fight on the House floor was part of a broader battle over how to treat marijuana amid changing public perceptions of its dangers and the wisdom of jailing people for its use and possession.

Public use and possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana are currently civil offenses in Maryland. A civil misdemeanor charge would go on a person's criminal record.

Del. Mary Beth Carozza, a Lower Shore Republican who offered the amendment, said it would "protect public spaces for our families."

As the bill stands after receiving preliminary approval Wednesday, it would make smoking marijuana in a car a criminal misdemeanor, under the same part of law that forbids driving in a car with an open container of alcohol.

The charge would be punishable with a fine rather than imprisonment, and the suspect could be given a citation rather than taken to jail.

The committee kept language that would make it an offense for passengers, as well as the driver, to smoke in a vehicle.

Committee members heard testimony last week that marijuana fumes in a closed car can have an intoxicating effect on the driver. If a police officer determined that a driver was impaired by marijuana, the person could be arrested on that more serious charge.

Possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana is currently punishable by escalating fines depending on the number of offenses a person commits. Public use of marijuana is punishable by a fine of $500.

Wednesday's debate was an echo of one heard last month when the House overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill decriminalizing the possession of marijuana paraphernalia. Critics of the bill said it made it harder to enforce laws against marijuana use in a car or public places.

Proponents of a stronger bill said they were promised a fix for those problems at the time of the override. But leaders of the House Judiciary Committee said they decided to deal with the vehicular use issue and the question of public consumption in separate bills.

Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario, arguing against the Republican-sponsored amendment, said the panel is still considering three bills that deal with public marijuana use. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the stiffer treatment of marijuana use in vehicles stood a better chance of passage in the Senate if it wasn't linked to the other issue.

But House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said the House should send the stronger bill. The Anne Arundel County Republican said that while the committee was still considering other legislation dealing with public use, he saw adding the measure to the bill as a matter of "trust but verify."

"We were promised a comprehensive solution to this issue and we didn't get it," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican.

But Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said it makes sense to deal with use in a vehicle separately.

"The other issue will have to stand on its own," he said.

Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he agrees that people should not be allowed to smoke marijuana in public. However, despite Vallario's prediction, he said the Senate wants a comprehensive bill that deals with public use, smoking in a vehicle and increasing the amount of marijuana that would trigger a criminal possession charge to an ounce. He said an ounce is the standard among other states that have decriminalized the drug.

Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he could support classifying public use as a misdemeanor – but only if it doesn't carry jail time and could be quickly expunged from somebody's record.

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