Pubdate: Sat, 15 Mar 2014
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2014 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Fredrick Kunkle and John Wagner


Small Amounts Would Be Handled Like Traffic Ticket; House Will Weigh in Next

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 (DAnne 
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 (RWashington) 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.
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