Pot decriminalization, legalization bills die in Md. House committee; task force formed

A committee in Maryland’s House of Delegates on Wednesday killed legislation that would have legalized or decriminalized the use of marijuana in the state, choosing instead to form a task force to study the issue.

The only major initiative on marijuana still alive in the General Assembly is a bill to revise the state’s medical marijuana law to make the drug more accessible to patients.

The Maryland Senate approved a decriminalization bill in mid-March, for the second year in a row.

Supporters were hopeful that the state might follow other jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, that have voted to lift criminal sanctions against the drug.

Many lawmakers believed that decriminalization — which would treat possession of small amounts of pot like a traffic ticket, rather than a criminal offense — stood a better chance of passage than bills that would have fully legalized marijuana, taxing and regulating its production and distribution in a way similar to alcohol.

But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) and members of his panel expressed concerns about both legalization and decriminalization and did not let the bills move forward.

“They’re dead this year,” said Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), who serves on the committee. He said he would have voted to send a decriminalization bill to the House floor but didn’t think there were enough votes in the committee to do so.

Supporters of decriminalization say it is time to back down from a war against a drug that, at best, has been shown to have medicinal properties and, at worst, is no more dangerous than alcohol.

Detractors said lessening penalties for smoking marijuana could have many unintended consequences and — despite lengthy hearings and debates — are urging a go-slow approach.

To create the Task Force on Marijuana Decriminalization and Diversion, the House Judiciary Committee amended a legalization bill sponsored by Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore).

The task force would include the state secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene, law enforcement officials, the office of the public defender and representatives of civil rights groups.

The committee then voted to amend a decriminalization bill by Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) — which passed the Senate approved by a vote of 36 to 8 last month — to conform with Anderson’s bill.

Meanwhile, a similar version of Anderson’s bill to legalize the drug — sponsored by Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery) — has languished in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The committee allowed a decriminalization bill sponsored by Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) to die without a vote. Under her proposal, a person caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would be subject to a $100 civil fine.

Anderson expressed disappointment that his legalization had been transformed to a task force but resigned to a continued struggle to lift criminal prohibitions on the drug. “It’s better than nothing coming out,” said Anderson.

Maryland’s House and Senate have passed different versions of a medical marijuana measure, which would make the medical marijuana law passed by the state last year more workable.

Supporters said they expect the differences in the two versions to be ironed out in a conference committee before the General Assembly adjourns for the year on Monday.

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