martin_omalley.jpgANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) – The Maryland House of Delegates voted Saturday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The House voted 78-55 for the bill. It would eliminate criminal charges for possessing less than 10 grams, or about one-third of an ounce.

The Senate has already approved a similar measure, but changes made by the House will require Senate approval to pass the bill before the legislative session ends at midnight Monday.

The Senate had proposed a maximum penalty of $100. The House bill raises the penalties to $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense.

The House bill also requires certain offenders -those under 21, and those caught with the drug three times or more -to be evaluated for treatment.

Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the Democratic governor will review the bill if it passes the General Assembly.

"He's considering it,'' Smith said after the House vote Saturday night.

The House Judiciary Committee voted earlier this week to halt the measure and merely assign a task force to study decriminalization policies. But the Legislative Black Caucus made a push Friday to bring the full decriminalization bill to a House vote, and the committee approved a compromised version Saturday morning.

In the afternoon, Republicans introduced several amendments to soften the changes to marijuana laws. One amendment would have required a public service campaign, highlighting the dangers of smoking marijuana. Another would have kept it a criminal offense to smoke pot in public.

Democrats said these changes were unnecessary. Not a single Republican amendment made it through.

"We don't have to notify the public that they're not supposed to use marijuana,'' said Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery. "It's still not legal.''

Much of Saturday's debate focused on whether decriminalization will encourage teens to smoke pot. Delegate Mike McDermott, R- Worcester, worked himself to a fever pitch decrying the bill.

"It's a vote to say, `You know what, kid? It's OK,''' McDermott said, his voice rising to a yell. "It's to turn your back on the problem.''

Fellow Republican Mike Smigiel, of Cecil County, countered that the bill gives teens a better second chance when they're caught with marijuana.

"We don't call our children who make mistakes criminals,'' he said.

Dumais said the proper way of responding to drug abuse is to encourage treatment, rather than imposing jail time.

McDermott also said the bill had been written too hastily, creating inconsistencies with existing law. For instance, under the bill, it would remain a criminal offense to possess marijuana paraphernalia, such as rolling papers or even a bag to carry it in.

Delegate Doyle Niemann, D-Prince George's, said passing the bill would force further conversations about the improvements it needs.

Arguments in support of the bill tended to focus on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. The American Civil Liberties Union found last year that black people in Baltimore are 5.6 times more likely than the city's white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Niemann said existing law punishes people who are "unfortunate enough to get caught.''

Ultimately 75 Democrats voted for decriminalization, and 20 voted against it. Among Republicans, the split was 35 in favor and 20 opposed.

If O'Malley signs the bill, it will take effect Oct. 1.


*Pictured above is Gov. Martin O'Malley.