A measure to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana got its final hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, and it's unclear if that will be the bill's last stop during the General Assembly's 90-day session.
For about 30 minutes, members of the House Judiciary Committee questioned the bill's sponsor, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, about how the bill would affect the validity of police searches and the state's ability to convict for charges greater than possession.
Some panel members expressed a concern that decriminalization would lead to more teenagers smoking pot. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Bowie, told Zirkin the "hesitancy on some of us" came from a belief that teenagers don't smoke marijuana because it is illegal.
"Once it's not illegal, I think you do change the perception," Valentino-Smith said.
Zirkin had done the dance before. Last year, he led the charge on a similar bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill made it to the Judiciary Committee, had a hearing, and never received a vote.
He said this year's bill is a better bill. Like last year's version, it would make possession of less than 10 grams of pot a civil offense, punishable by a fine.
But unlike last year's bill, Senate Bill 364 includes a provision to bolster drug rehabilitation programs with fine revenues and would require juveniles caught with less than 10 grams to appear in court with the possibility of being sent to a drug treatment program.
Walking away from his second go-round in two years with the panel of lawmakers, Zirkin said he was "cautiously optimistic" this year's measure would get a vote.
"Look, I hope they'll move the bill or some semblance of it," Zirkin said. "It sounded like people were thinking about it."
The man who will make the decision about whether to allow a vote on the bill, Del. Joe Vallario, D-Calvert, did not return a call for comment on Wednesday.
Vallario has been vocal about his opposition to the bill and exercised his power as chairman of the Judiciary committee to not allow a vote on the bill last year.
The ACLU of Maryland and NAACP called on Vallario to allow a vote on Monday, releasing a poll showing voter support in Vallario's district and others for making possession of small amounts a civil offense. The ACLU paid for the poll.
"The ACLU has long known that the public supports redirecting police resources away from low-level marijuana offenses and towards serious crimes," said ACLU of Maryland Executive Director Susan Goering in a statement. "The ACLU of Maryland calls on Chairman Vallario to bring SB 364 for a vote and allow his committee members to vote their conscience."
On Monday, Zirkin said he hoped members of the Judiciary Committee would ask good questions to clear up some of their concerns about the legislation. On Tuesday, he said he thought they had.
"I thought the House Judiciary Committee asked great questions," Zirkin said. "To make a wholesale change (to the law) is a big deal."
But outside the committee room shortly after the hearing, some lawmakers still weren't sold.
Del. Glen Glass, R-Harford, said he wasn't sure if the bill would get a vote this year, and he still wasn't sure his position on the bill.
"I'm really undecided because, thing is, people of African ethnic heritage are being arrested more for smoking pot and that should be looked at. But if you decriminalize marijuana, then you may incentivize young kids to start smoking it," Glass said. "It may be best to see how things go in Colorado before we move forward."
Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, said he was opposed to the measure and didn't see it moving.
"I just don't see this going anywhere this year," Hough said. "I guess in the next couple years, it could be a push... we'll see what happens, I guess what happens to it probably depends on who the next governor is."