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Medical marijuana, ignition locks grab stage during legislative session

ANNAPOLIS — Defendants who use marijuana for necessary medicinal purposes will have a defense to a charge of drug possession, under a bill the General Assembly passed during the 90-day session that ended Monday.

The legislature, in an effort to punish very negligent and deadly driving, also created an offense, “criminal negligence by vehicle,” to ensure that motorists who kill do not escape prosecution.

In a similar vein, lawmakers passed legislation to expand the use of ignition interlock systems to prevent convicted drunk drivers from operating a motor vehicle unless they are sober.

The General Assembly passed these new crime-and-punishment measures — which Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to sign into law — during a session that might be best remembered for hot-button social legislation that failed to win passage. These ill-fated measures included bills to allow same-sex couples to marry in Maryland and a ban on discrimination against transgendered individuals.

A proposal to abolish the death penalty in Maryland also failed to win passage.

As for legislation that did pass, Senate Bill 308 would enable people being tried for marijuana possession to offer a defense that they were using the drug to treat an illness or ailment. The defendants would have to present testimony from a licensed physician stating that marijuana use is necessary to bring them therapeutic or palliative relief for their illness or ailment.

The measure would not legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but it would permit medical-marijuana use to serve as an “affirmative defense” to a charge of drug possession, said Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, a sponsor of the bill.

“The triumph here is that we’re not going to treat medical marijuana users as criminals,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery.

Another approved measure, House Bill 363, would make it a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine if a person kills someone as a result of driving, operating or controlling a motor vehicle in a “criminally negligent manner.”

The law defines such a manner as one in which the driver “should be aware, but fails to perceive, that the person’s conduct creates a substantial and unjustifiable risk that [death] will occur; and that the failure to perceive constitutes a substantial deviation from the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonable person.”

The measure would criminalize deadly driving that falls short of the wanton and willful negligence required to prove vehicular manslaughter but which is nevertheless “dangerous, improvident and inappropriate, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Drivers who are simply negligent would not be guilty under the significantly higher criminally negligent standard, said Frosh, D-Montgomery.

Senate Bill 803, which the General Assembly also passed, would prohibit people convicted of drunk driving a second time or more from operating a motor vehicle unless they first pass an alcohol breath test connected to the vehicle’s ignition.

Drivers convicted of having a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 (.08 is the legal limit) would have to breathe into these ignition interlock devices after a first drunk-driving conviction. Motorists under age 21 would have to breathe into such a device after a first drunk-driving conviction.

Drivers would be sentenced to use an interlock system for six months on their first offense warranting the punishment. A second offense would result in a one-year sentence and each subsequent offense would result in a three-year sentence.

Supporters of the measure say it would result in 4,500 convicted drunk drivers using the interlock device who would otherwise be permitted to drive without the breath test.

“This has been a hard battle,” said Raskin, noting that an ignition interlock bill has failed in the past few General Assembly sessions. “This is life-saving legislation.”

On the foreclosure front, the General Assembly passed a measure to require the current holder of the homeowner’s loan to attest in its notice of intent to foreclose that it is the one to whom the debt is owed.

The legislation, Senate Bill 205, is intended to ensure that homeowners know with whom they must initiate loan-mitigation or mediation discussions to avoid foreclosure, said Frosh, the measure’s chief sponsor.

The bill — which O’Malley signed into law Monday — gives homeowners “better notice of the foreclosure process,” Frosh said.

“We continue to improve the foreclosure process,” he said. “We continue to make it more friendly, if that’s the right word, for homeowners.”