ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 19 -- The Maryland Senate passed mandatory 10-year prison sentences today for adults convicted of distributing drugs to children under 16, but chances for approval in the House of Delegates are less certain.

The Senate voted 42 to 2 for the bill, sponsored by Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's), and others that would make the 10-year prison term mandatory for persons 21 or older who are convicted of "distributing or dispensing a controlled dangerous substance or a counterfeit controlled dangerous substance" to someone under 16.

Current law makes no distinction between distributing drugs to an adult and distributing drugs to a minor. The current penalties include imprisonment of up to 20 years and a fine of $25,000, depending upon the classification of the substance.

Requiring mandatory sentences for drug distribution would be a major change in Maryland law, and comes at a time when police say a growing number of children, especially in urban areas, are being used as couriers in the drug trade.

"It's a tough bill, but it's a very tough problem," said Green, who added that it was "an outgrowth of the problems we're having in our area right now."

"Everywhere you go people are talking about kids being used {in the drug trade} and this sends a message to those pushers who are involved with minors."

By using children as couriers, runners and "holders," drug dealers can avoid being caught handling drugs themselves. In turn, children caught with drugs are seldom convicted.

Children are used in a variety of ways. Sometimes young children are used to deliver, or run, drugs between dealers who are working a particular drug corridor. If one dealer's supply is running low, for example, he may use a child to fetch more drugs from a dealer nearby with a larger supply.

Dealers also use children as holders -- that is, to hold drugs that the dealer is going to sell. When a transaction is completed, the buyer approaches the holder, who hands over the quantity of drugs purchased. Children may be involved in the entire transaction, delivering drugs and money between dealer and customer.

The bill passed the Senate without debate.

The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Talbot) voted against the bill, along with Senate Majority Leader Clarence Blount (D-Baltimore).

The Division of Correction could not project how many people would be imprisoned under the bill using past conviction rates.

Bills requiring mandatory prison sentences, regardless of the offense, traditionally have a tougher time in the House than in the Senate. And House Judiciary Committee Chairman William S. Horne (D-Talbot) said the drug bill would have problems, too.

"It's another Senate effort to gain good publicity," said Horne, whose committee has a reputation for killing such legislation. "We try to do what's really right and we get the bad headlines."

The House committee is especially reluctant to dictate the sentences judges must impose, Horne said, preferring to give discretion to the judicial branch. He also said mandatory sentencing laws don't always have the desired effect, because judges can find ways around imposing the required sentence.

But there are some signs that the crime and violence spawned by the area's raging drug wars may be moving legislators to take some action. The bill approved by the Senate today did not make it out of committee last year.

"The time is right this year" because of the publicity about children involved with drugs, Green said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has opposed mandatory sentences in the past, did not actively fight the bill this year. Executive Director Stuart Comstock-Gay said the organization opposes the bill and believes sentencing should be left up to judges.

But he said there was a sense that the Senate was primed to pass the legislation this year and he felt that vigorously opposing it would be like "shouting into the void." "It sounds not only tough on crime, it sounds tough on drugs," he said.