By Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
Following hours of hot debate, negotiation and shouting, the House of Delegates Saturday approved removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana in a 78-55 vote.
The measure already approved by the Senate, SB364, would make possessing 10 grams of marijuana or less a civil offense, like a parking ticket. A first-time offender would pay $100, while second and third breaches would get a fine of up to $250 and $500, respectively.
A previous statement from the office of Gov. Martin O’Malley indicated he has not yet decided whether to sign the bill.
The bill will need to return to the Senate for approval of the many alterations by the House Judiciary Committee.
All but dead and then revived
The bill, SB 364, sponsored by Baltimore County Democrat Sen. Bobby Zirkin and Howard County Republican Allan Kittleman, was subject of a very public drama in which it seemed all but dead in the House committee.
Judiciary Chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George’s County, a staunch opponent of the legislation, gutted the bill last week in committee, altering it to be a task force to investigate the impact of decriminalizing marijuana.
Members of the Black Caucus, including Baltimore City Del. Keiffer Mitchell, and gubernatorial candidate Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County, rallied after the decision.
Vallario said he realized he didn’t have the votes to keep the bill as his committee had amended it and instead decided to collaborate with the caucus and the other Democrats.
“This is a democratic state,” Vallario said after the vote Saturday. “The members of the General Assembly expressed over the past year or two their request to be heard about this issue. I was not going to be the one to stand in their way.”
Changes to the Senate bill
One addition to the bill mandates that offenders 21 or younger must appear in court and be assessed for symptoms of substance abuse. They may then be referred to a rehabilitation or educational program approved by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Under a House amendement, anyone older than 21 must have a court appearance after their third offense.
The bill also dictates that you may not drive while impaired.
Despite these modifications, the legislation still endured significant criticism during floor debate.
Screaming and sibling potheads
Del. Mike McDermott, an Eastern Shore police officer who had fought the bill as a member of the Judiciary Committee, vocally opposed it in floor debate, and in two instances, his diatribes ended with him screaming. He asserted that the legislature had little time to study the bill.
“This has been put together on the fly like it’s some sort of last ditch effort to save the world,” McDermott said.
Other arguments were tamer.
GOP Del. Kathy Afzali from Frederick County recounted an emotional anecdote about her two brothers who began smoking pot at an early age — she attributed marijuana to their transition to methamphetamines and other “harder” substances.
She offered an amendment that would have reduced the legal amount from 10 to 5 grams, which failed 54-78.
“We’re talking about people who use this for recreational purposes, this is a significant amount,” Afzali said.
A failed amendment from Republican Del. Justin Ready of Carroll County would have kept marijuana as a criminal offense for those under 21, but their record would have been expunged on the offender’s 21st birthday.
Much of the emotional testimony from the delegates came from the desire to “protect children,” an oft-cited argument. A rejected amendment from Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick, another Judiciary Committee member, would have prevented smoking in designated school zones.
Mitchell said his justification for the bill was an apparent racial disparity regarding marijuana arrests in the state.
Research from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates Maryland holds the highest arrest rate for marijuana possession in the country, and though whites and blacks use at a similar rate, blacks are arrested much more frequently.
“This is something that can no longer wait for a task force,” Mitchell said during the floor debate. “We are moving on the right path.”