Md. delegates try to revive bill to decriminalize marijuana; close vote expected Saturday

Members of the Maryland House of Delegates on Friday moved to resurrect a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, just days after the measure was scuttled in committee.

Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore) offered an amendment on the House floor that would undo an attempt by the Judiciary Committee to set up a task force to study the issue. Debate on the measure was put off until Saturday at the request of the committee’s chairman, ­Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), who has been a staunch opponent of decriminalization.

After an afternoon of lengthy, closed-door negotiations, momentum appeared to be growing in favor of a bill similar to a measure that passed in the Senate with bipartisan support. Facing pressure from other senior members of his party, Vallario told reporters Friday night that his committee would recovene early Saturday “to see what we’re going to agree to.”

Mitchell characterized the decriminalization measure as urgent, citing data showing that African Americans go to jail at a higher rate for marijuana possession, despite usage levels that are no different from those of whites.

“We in good conscience cannot allow a task force to take place for two years while there [are] racial disparities,” Mitchell said. “We believe that it is not something that should be continued to be studied as the facts continue to stare us in the face.”

Opponents argue that decriminalizing possession of even small amounts of marijuana will send the wrong message to young people and create unintended consequences.

“You continue to see many people who are in a desperate condition — perhaps strung out on heroin and other drugs — and marijuana is where they started,” Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll) said.

Several lawmakers predicted a close vote in the House on Saturday. The legislative session is scheduled to conclude Monday.

The attempt by members of the Legislative Black Caucus and other delegates to resurrect the bill presented an unusual challenge to the tightly scripted legislature — not only to committee rule, but to Vallario, one of its most powerful practitioners.

“There are a number of members in the House who feel very strongly that Maryland should be moving in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana,” said Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

Overcoming a committee’s opposition “is very difficult,” she said. “But it’s not impossible, and it has happened before.”

All three major Democratic candidates running for governor — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery) have voiced support for decriminalization.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who is weighing a 2016 presidential bid, has not said whether he would sign or veto a decriminalization bill if it reaches his desk. O’Malley has said he opposes legalization. But he and his aides have been more open to more moderate reforms in marijuana laws.

Colorado and Washington state recently legalized recreational use of marijuana, and the District this year decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug. Earlier in its legislative session, Maryland’s General Assembly advanced measures to revise the state’s medical marijuana law to allow patients easier access to the drug.

But the decriminalization issue has split the legislature. Last year, the Senate passed a decriminalization bill that died in Vallario’s committee without a vote. Until Friday, this year looked almost like a rerun.

Vallario and members of his committee allowed one decriminalization bill to die without a vote Wednesday and amended another bill to create a task force to study the issue. The panel also disposed of a bill that would have fully legalized marijuana.

The Senate measure would impose a $100 civil fine, but no criminal charge, on people caught with less than 10 grams — about a third of an ounce — of marijuana.

Closed-door discussions late in the day Friday focused on ways to tighten several provisions in the Senate bill, according to several delegates. For example, the Senate bill would require young people caught with marijuana to appear before a judge, who could order treatment and counseling. Delegates were considering making the age that triggers that provision under 21, rather than under 18.

Reviving the bill would mean persuading delegates to buck an unwritten rule that they should respect committee decisions — and, in the case of committee members, not switch votes once the measure is before the entire chamber.

“Typically, once your committee has voted on a bill, typically, you’re asked to stick with your committee,” Braveboy said.

Supporters of decriminalization say the collateral damage of existing marijuana laws includes African Americans’ higher incarceration rates for marijuana possession and the struggles of people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana to obtain jobs or college loans.

“There’s a huge generational divide,” state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) said. “The more junior members regard this as a matter of public policy and think our current policy is counter­productive and wasteful and unfairly stigmatizing of people.”

What happens Saturday could depend on House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). Busch has been cautious regarding bills loosening marijuana laws but also understands that support for decriminalization is growing among his members.

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