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Key Maryland House panel votes to support marijuana decriminalization, changing course

The Maryland House Judiciary Committee reversed course Saturday morning and agreed to support legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

With the 13-to-8 committee vote, the full House is likely to approve a bill later Saturday that would impose a $100 civil fine, but no criminal charge, on people caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana for the first time.

A similar measure has already passed the Senate.

Just three days ago, the same House committee shelved a decriminalization bill, instead voting 14 to 5 to study the issue at the urging of its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s).

Facing intense pressure from the Legislative Black Caucus and other lawmakers who favor loosening marijuana laws, the committee formally reconsidered its position Saturday morning.

Delegates voted to make several changes to the bill that passed the Senate.

The Senate bill, for example, would subject those caught with small amounts of marijuana to a civil fine of $100 regardless of how many previous offenses the person had. Under the House approach, the fine for a second offense would be $250, and the fine for a third and subsequent offenses would be $500.

The House plan also mandates drug treatment and education for first offenders under the age of 21 and for those older than 21 after a third offense.

Leaders of the Judiciary Committee plan to offer the measure it approved Saturday morning as an amendment on the House floor when scheduled debate on its task-force bill resumes.

Floor debate on that bill was halted Friday after Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore) offered an amendment that would scrap the task force and restore the legislation on decriminalization.

The Judiciary plan is expected to be taken up by the chamber Saturday instead of Mitchell’s proposed amendment.

Lawmakers are meeting Saturday in advance of their planned Monday adjournment.

John Wagner is a political reporter covering the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

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