A marijuana plant flourishes under grow lights at a warehouse in Denver in October 2010. (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press file)

Maryland House approves bill to decriminalize marijuana

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — 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 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.

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Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the Democratic governor will review the bill if it passes the General Assembly. O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, has expressed wariness about decriminalizing marijuana in the past.

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 pot. Another would have kept it a criminal offense to smoke pot in public.

Not one Republican amendment made it through.

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.

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

This story was first published on DenverPost.com