Maryland Senate passes bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana

Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly said that under current Maryland law, the criminal penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana could include a felony conviction.

The Maryland Senate on Friday approved a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, where its prospects are uncertain.

The Senate bill, which passed 36 to 8, would remove criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana and impose a civil fine of $100. Violators would receive citations similar to traffic tickets; they could either pay the fine or request a hearing in District Court.

A similar bill last year did not get out of the House Judiciary Committee.

“If it passes the House this year, it will be a big step forward,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said.

Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Mongtomery), who is sponsoring the decriminalization bill in the House, said the “only challenge” is getting the bill approved by the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation. She said she is hopeful that the Senate passage will provide “a boost of momentum” in her chamber.

Maryland is the latest state to consider repealing decades of marijuana prohibition. Separate bills are pending in the General Assembly that would legalize marijuana, taxing and regulating it as Colorado and the state of Washington began doing this year. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have moved to decriminalize its use, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates legalization.

Miller told reporters that the legislature would not pass a legalization bill this year.

Before the Senate vote, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he still senses unease about the decriminalization bill among House members, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and members of his panel.

“I know there are still a lot of concerns . . . because coming from a criminal offense to a civil offense takes a lot of the tools out of the hands of public safety officers,” Busch said. “Certainly, we’ll take a look at the Senate bill and see what it has in it.”

Busch said he “would hope” that Vallario allows a vote on the measure.

Mizeur, who is running for governor, said that the bill has “broad, bipartisan support” in the full House.

Under current Maryland law, a person in possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is subject to a criminal conviction, up to 90 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. Existing criminal penalties would still apply to possession of larger amounts of marijuana.

The Maryland Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard), includes provisions designed to discourage drug abuse among minors, which were not part of the bill approved by the Senate in 2013.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) amended the bill so that a judge would have the discretion to order a third-time offender to attend drug treatment or education programs. Another amendment directs revenue from the citations to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to combat drug abuse.

Zirkin said removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana would allow law enforcement to focus on more serious offenses and would be a first step toward diminishing the racial disparity in the way penalties have been applied. It would decrease the number of people whose criminal records for marijuana possession have hindered their ability to find work or attend college, he said.

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