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Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says the committee opted to split marijuana legislation into two bills to increase the chance of passage in the Senate. ‘They'll be saying it's OK to smoke in your car and drive and we'll send the other bill over saying you can't smoke in public and we'll see what they do with that,’ he says.

Md. House vote sets up third year of marijuana policy conflict

ANNAPOLIS — A preliminary vote in the House of Delegates on Wednesday may have set the stage for another battle over marijuana policy in the state.

The House gave preliminary approval to House Bill 183, which makes smoking marijuana in a vehicle illegal but removed language that would have also made it a misdemeanor to smoke in public — a provision that would make smoking in public akin to drinking alcohol in public.

The amended bill and a promise from Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. to move on a separate bill dealing with penalties for smoking in public appears to be in conflict with efforts in the Senate to deal with the issue in a more comprehensive manner that would include increasing the amount of marijuana that would be subject to a civil citation.

Vallario, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his committee opted to split the issues of smoking marijuana in cars and in public into two bills to increase the chance of passage in the Senate. He promised that one of the three bills in his committee dealing with smoking in public would get a vote and come to the full House.

“It’s splitting it into two bills so that when it gets to the Senate, let the Senate say, ‘It’s OK to smoke in cars.’ Let them say that,” said Vallario. “They’ll be saying it’s OK to smoke in your car and drive and we’ll send the other bill over saying you can’t smoke in public and we’ll see what they do with that.”

Republicans, who spearheaded an attempt to restore the public smoking penalties, expressed cynicism regarding promises of dealing with the issue later.

“We were promised a comprehensive solution to this item and we didn’t get it,” said. Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland. “We got half a loaf and sometimes in this body a half a loaf is good. But I also can tell you sometimes we separate the question because we want to cut half a loaf off and throw it away. And that’s why this question has been separated, because the body has shown that it can’t pass the other half. So, we’ve omitted a very important half of this loaf of bread.”

Del. Herbert H. McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, said removing the penalty would probably be the end of any discussion on penalties for smoking marijuana in public and urged legislators to approve an amendment to restore the original language of the bill.

“This is going to be your last chance,” McMillan said. “It really is.”

‘The correct bill’

The vote in the House sets up a potential conflict between the House and Vallario, who has been resistant to easing criminal marijuana penalties, and the Senate, which has pushed issues such as decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and other related issues.

Two years ago, members of the House Black Caucus motioned to move a bill out of Vallario’s committee, which the Senate had already approved, that made possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana subject to a civil citation.

Last year, the Senate approved legislation that attempted to address issues of paraphernalia possession, smoking in cars and in public while at the same time increasing the amount eligible to a civil citation to 20 grams. Vallario and the House opted for a similar measure without the increased possession provision, setting up a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan last spring and a contentious override vote in the House and Senate earlier this year.

“We sent that bill to them last year and they passed the worst one,” said Sen. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “We sent them the correct compromise. The House caused the whole veto and all of that by not passing the correct bill. We increased the amount you could get caught with. The state’s attorney’s loved it because it had driving and smoking in public. The state’s attorneys wanted our bill.”

Hough called last year’s effort “a good compromise” but said the sticking point continues to be in the House of Delegates over the amount of marijuana that would qualify for a civil penalty.

Vallario “is all hung up on the amount,” Hough said.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said a bill with provisions covering smoking in cars as well as public use would not have been a nonstarter. Instead, he and his committee were interested in a more comprehensive approach that would also consider increasing the amount for civil possession to 20 or even 30 grams, or about an ounce, he said.

“We’re going to redo the whole bill,” Zirkin said. “We’re not doing this piecemeal. I don’t believe we should do this piecemeal. My opinion is we should deal with this in one fell swoop.”