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“(P)olice officers must have probable cause to believe a person possesses a criminal amount of marijuana in order to arrest that person and conduct a search incident thereto,” Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera wrote for the high court. (iStock photo)

Marijuana bills back again

But legislative leaders talking a go-slow approach

State legislators will head to Annapolis Jan. 14 and soon after will likely consider a number of bills related to marijuana policy in Maryland.

Those topics are likely to include a possible revision of marijuana decriminalization laws as they relate to paraphernalia; making it illegal to smoke marijuana in public; and the legalization of the drug — commonly referred to as regulation and taxation — similar to what has happened in Colorado and Washington state.

But some top officials say Maryland is not likely to make swift or dramatic changes this year.

“We’re just taking baby steps right now,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has expressed opposition to legalizing marijuana.

Annapolis-SummitMany things have changed in the last year since lawmakers were asked to consider bills related to marijuana.

In Maryland, Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery County, ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial primary campaign. One of the key points in her campaign was her so-called pot-for-tots plan that called for the taxation and regulation of marijuana with the proceeds being used to pay for her proposed expansion of preschool education.

Republican Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, much like his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, is opposed to legalizing marijuana.

Additionally, as the result of election losses, retirements and delegates stepping up to run for the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee lost eight of its 22 members. The loss of more than one-third of the committee’s members could present some interesting shifts in the political dynamics, though which bills ultimately move to the floor will determined by powerful, longtime Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s County.

Voters in Alaska and Oregon approved measures two weeks ago that allow their states to join Colorado and Washington as the only states that have legalized he use of the drug.

Voters in Washington, D.C., also approved a ballot initiative authorizing the city council to draw up a law legalizing the drug in the nation’s capital. The fate of that initiative and possible law are unclear since both would need the approval of a Congress that saw gains for Republicans.

Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the election results weren’t all bad news for pro-legalization forces.

“Republicans won overwhelmingly across the country but so did marijuana policy,” Yeung said. “We’re at the point where marijuana policy is not a fringe issue.”

Nineteen other states, including Maryland, have laws on the books legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal use. A state commission finalized more than 90-pages of regulations meant to expand access under a law that has not been used since it was passed in 2013.

Members of a legislative committee next year will also likely be asked to approve new regulations governing the state’s revamped medical marijuana program. But over the 90-day session lawmakers will seek to address what some say are additional shortcomings in the law.

“We’re already thinking about what we need to do in January,” Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, said following an Oct. 28 meeting of the state medical marijuana commission.

Chief among those issues could be a measure to allow the use of extracts such as hemp oil. Members of the state commission said they were unsure they had the authority to allow the use of such products in Maryland.

Glenn said making the change through legislation wouldn’t pose a problem.

“We can do anything,” Glenn said.

Catching up with decriminalization

The possession of small amounts of marijuana — amounts under 10 grams — was decriminalized under a law that took effect Oct. 1.

Left out of that change was a related change to the penalties for the possession of paraphernalia, which still carries a fine of up to $500.

“Our priority will be to improve upon the decriminalization law passed last session,” Yeung said.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, sponsored the bill that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Zirkin said changing the paraphernalia laws last year would have made an already contentious issue even more controversial.

“It was discussed but it was left out intentionally,” said Zirkin, who is considered the leading candidate to chair the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee, the panel that will review any proposed marijuana laws.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County and a retired Baltimore County Police officer, raised the issue on the floor of the House of Delegates last year and said he is skeptical about claims that paraphernalia was left out intentionally.

“They didn’t understand the bill last year until we told them,” Cluster said.

Cluster, who opposes decriminalizing paraphernalia, said the law is a tool for officers and that they would lose the ability to search a person if the penalty was reduced to a civil citation.

“We’re just making things worse,” Cluster said, adding that he is skeptical of studies claiming racial disparities related to arrests for small amounts of marijuana or paraphernalia.

“As a cop, I didn’t care if you were white or black,” Cluster said. “If you broke the law, I locked you up.”

Prosecutors in a number of counties are dealing with the paraphernalia issue in a number of ways, from not prosecuting the offense to only prosecuting if it is part of a larger set of charges.

Some worry that the approach will create confusion and leave it to the court system to sort the issue out.

Zirkin said he has already received proposed language for a bill to decriminalize possession of paraphernalia from Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger. The senator declined to discuss the specifics of the proposed language.

Shellenberger, who did not return a call seeking comment, spoke about his concerns in July saying there was a need to draw “a bright line for police officers so that we don’t have to wait for the courts to decide in five years.”

Tax and regulate 

Yeung and others also expect a return of bills that would legalize personal use of marijuana in Maryland much in the same manner as Colorado or Washington state. The lobbyist said proponents understand that their efforts to “educate legislators” will have to continue in the coming session.

“Our preference would be to pass something this year but there are a large number of legislators who are new and have never had to think about this issue before,” Yeung

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, D-Montgomery County, sponsored a bill to legalize marijuana last year and said legislators may need time to catch up to all the changes locally and nationally.

“The General Assembly took a big stride last year with the decriminalization bill and we did a tremendous job educating on the larger issue of regulating and taxing,” Raskin said. “My gut tells me that legislators and the public want to take stock of what is happening in Colorado, Washington and D.C.”

Passage of a bill legalizing marijuana seems unlikely again this year.

Vallario, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he remains opposed to tax and regulate legislation.

Miller, the longest-serving head of a state senate in the country, said legalization of marijuana is not in the cards this year.

“We’re not going to do anything like Colorado or Washington,” Miller said.

About this series

This is the first in a weekly series of stories by The Daily Record highlighting issues in the upcoming General Assembly session in preparation for the Annapolis Summit, a two-hour program in January featuring the state’s top political leaders. All of The Daily Record stories in the series will be available on our website, TheDailyRecord.com

The summit will be hosted by Marc Steiner, whose “The Marc Steiner Show” on WEAA 88.9 FM at 10 a.m. weekdays is broadcasting a weekly feature on the same subjects as the newspaper series. The show also will be posted at steinershow.org.