People on parole or probation in Maryland who use or possess small amounts of marijuana would no longer be in violation of their sentences under a bill that was narrowly approved by the House of Delegates on Monday.
Although proponents say it is important for the rules of probation and parole to mirror criminal law, and not to penalize people for offenses that are no longer criminal, opponents of the bill said it would undermine aspects of the criminal justice system that are intended to keep former inmates on a positive path.
Possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a violent offense, said Del. Jay Walker (Prince George’s), one of dozens of Democrats who voted against the bill. But drug possession in general, he said, is related to the “drug culture — the most violent culture we have.”
“It seems like we don’t agree with probation,” Walker said in an interview after the vote.
Del. David Moon (D-
Montgomery), who sponsored the legislation, described the bill as “an attempt to keep nonviolent offenders out of the system.”
“The spirit is to include all offenses that have been moved from criminal to civil,” he said.
When it was first submitted to the legislature, the bill specifically mentioned the possession and use of 10 grams or less of marijuana as an act that would no longer be considered a violation of probation or parole.
But the bill was amended to remove references to drug possession, which were replaced with more general language saying that a person cannot be sanctioned for a parole or probation violation if they have committed any “nonjailable civil offense.”
Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert) said the bill was “another step to make it easier for the drug culture to exist in our state. . . . This is another pro-drug bill in a series of pro-drug bills.”
Last week, both chambers approved bills decriminalizing the possession of marijuana paraphernalia such as bongs and pipes. And on Monday evening, the House voted 85 to 55 to get rid of mandatory-minimum sentences for some nonviolent, drug-related offenses. The legislation has changed since it was first introduced, limiting the circumstances that would no longer carry a minimum sentence.
Proponents of the legislation say that it would give judges more discretion in setting sentences and that it could cut down on the amount of money the state spends on housing and caring for inmates. Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said during a floor debate that the state’s current approach to fighting drugs — imposing heavy sentences and locking up users away from society — is not working and needs reform.
But a series of Republicans opposed the legislation, warning that it would result in more drug dealers on the streets. Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore County) asked his colleagues if any of them had encountered constituents while campaigning last year who wanted to see more drug dealers on their streets.
“Who’s the winner? The drug dealer,” McDonough said of the legislation. “Who’s the loser? The community.”
The legislation dealing with parole was one of dozens of bills taken up by the General Assembly on Monday as it worked to approve them before “crossover,” the day they need to pass one chamber in order to have the best chance of becoming law.
Although crossover day was supposed to be Monday, the House and Senate agreed to extend it until Tuesday to give lawmakers time to consider more bills, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said. The House gathered twice Monday to work its way through a long list of bills.
For more than an hour, delegates debated the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” and a bill that would delay allowing fracking for natural gas so that a panel could review the potential impact to the state.
The House nearly unanimously approved legislation that would allow for midwives to become licensed and regulated, and it unanimously approved two bills that address standardized testing of students.
One bill, which has passed the Senate, would create a commission to study how many standardized tests students are required to take.
The other bill would require the Maryland State Board of Education to provide information to education committees in the Senate and House of Delegates on the state’s new Kindergarten Readiness Assessments, including whether the tests are developmentally appropriate and if the schools have the technology needed to administer them.
The bill originally called for a two-year moratorium, a computer-based test that was first given this fall.