5 things to ponder in the wake of the Maryland House’s marijuana decriminalization vote


The Maryland House of Delegates. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

A 78-to-55 vote on Saturday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana capped an extraordinary few days in the Maryland House of Delegates in which a bill that appeared dead in committee came roaring back to life on the chamber’s floor.

The Senate, which passed similar legislation last month, is expected to sign off on the House’s work on Monday, the final day of Maryland’s 90-day legislative session, sending the bill to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). In the wake of Saturday’s drama, here are five things to think about.

1. Will O’Malley sign the bill?

O’Malley, who rose to political prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, began this session by pronouncing that he was “not much in favor” of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, as Colorado and Washington state have recently done. He called the drug “a gateway to even more harmful behavior.”

But O’Malley has been more open to more moderate marijuana reforms. And the bill that passed Saturday night is a long way from legalization. Only those caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana would face fines, rather than criminal sanctions. The act of possession would still be considered illegal.

From a pure political calculus, it’s hard to imagine how O’Malley, who is considering a 2016 White House bid, would benefit from vetoing the bill, which reflects the thinking of a growing number of Democratic activists, including younger voters. A veto would be a slap in the face to majority will in Annapolis in O’Malley’s eighth and final 90-day session.

On Saturday, O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith pointed out that the governor signed two bills last year on marijuana reform, including one that established the state’s medical marijuana program. The other gave law enforcement discretion as to whether to issue a citation or make an arrest for marijuana possession.

If the decriminalization bill reaches his desk, Smith said, “the governor will review it and make a decision.”

2. Why did House Speaker Michael E. Busch allow this breach of committee rule?

Saturday’s vote wouldn’t have happened without the blessing of Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who allowed rank-and-file Democrats to buck the will of a powerful committee chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s).

On Wednesday, Vallario’s House Judiciary Committee voted to study the issue of decriminalization for two years instead of moving forward with a bill. That position began to unravel when it became clear that the majority of the 98 Democrats in the chamber did not share it.

Busch is the longest-serving speaker Annapolis has ever seen. One of the reasons he’s lasted 12 years is that Busch — a 67-year-old former high school football coach — can read where his membership is headed and tends to let his positions evolve accordingly.

Busch made a similar maneuver a few years ago on same-sex marriage (more on that below).

“The speaker is the speaker because he listens to his membership,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has presided over the Senate for more than 25 years, told reporters Saturday. “He saw the troops going the other way, and he told the chairman, ‘We need to go the other way.’ And that’s what happened.”

3. Does Vallario still wield power?

Vallario is an Annapolis institution and remains so. But with Saturday’s vote, it’s clear his grip on the gavel is loosening.

This wasn’t the first time Busch has maneuvered around the 77-year-old chairman to get legislation to the floor. During the same-sex marriage debate, Busch assigned the bill jointly to two committees to avoid a situation where it would get bottled up in Judiciary. Despite Vallario’s opposition, the bill eventually passed and become law.

As Saturday’s events were unfolding, one of Vallario’s colleagues on his committee could be overheard telling him: “Sometimes you get the big bear, and sometime the big bear gets you.”

Vallario’s next test is his reelection bid. He is facing challengers in a June 24 Democratic primary in a redrawn district where polls suggest that his position on marijuana decriminalization is out of step with a majority of his constituents.

4. Does this help Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Heather R. Mizeur, a lead backer of decriminalization?

Mizeur, a delegate from Montgomery County, has made marijuana reform a big part of her Democratic primary campaign against two better-known and better-funded opponents, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

She was the lead sponsor of a marijuana decriminalization bill very similar to the one that passed in the House on Saturday and was involved in the negotiations.

In a news release Saturday afternoon, she called the House vote “a huge first step towards slowing down and ultimately ending our state’s failed war on drugs.”

“We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat because we understood the urgency behind the need to act this year,” Mizeur said.

Her challenge now is distinguishing her views on the issue from those of Brown and Gansler, both of whom have voiced support for decriminalization and both of whom have made policy proposals that would be funded by the savings that come from prosecuting fewer marijuana cases.

As governor, Mizeur says she would back outright legalization, and she has proposed a system of taxing and regulating marijuana similar to what is being attempted in Colorado. It remains to be seen how many Democratic primary voters in Maryland would support that.

5. Is legalization the next step for Maryland?

Assuming O’Malley signs the bill, the early betting in Annapolis on Saturday was that decriminalization would remain the law in Maryland for a few years to come.

Miller, who personally favors legalization, said he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.

“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.

Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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