An effort to change first-time, nonviolent and low-volume drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors was delivered a setback in the House of Delegates yesterday when lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have made the legislation more palatable to conservatives.
The House is scheduled to give final consideration to the bill today. If it passes, it could be a major step back from the tough-on-crime policies of the war on drugs. The idea behind the push, sponsored by Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, is that drug offenders' needs can be much better met in treatment instead of in prison.
A similar bill failed by one vote last year, and many lawmakers still oppose it, believing any diminution of penalties for drug crimes sends the wrong message.
"I'm still hopeful," Anderson said after his amendment narrowly failed.
The amendment would have lowered the amount of drugs an offender could be caught with and still fall into the misdemeanor category, toughening the bill somewhat.
While defending the legislation on the House floor, Anderson said he and members of the House Judiciary Committee tried to craft the bill so it would lessen penalties for "a person who might be considered a low-level dealer, or a dealer-user" who had been arrested.
"This would make Maryland the only state in the union that allows drug distribution to be a misdemeanor," said Del. D. Page Elmore, an Eastern Shore Republican. "This bill is not good legislation."