"Joint" session of legislature ponders legalization

By the time 4:20 P.M. on April 20 rolls around, when many cannabis culturalists will burn one down in a ritual whose origins are traced to a group of pot-smoking California high-schoolers in 1971, the Maryland General Assembly's 2013 session will be over by almost two weeks. That'll give Marylanders who observe this longstanding bong-loading ritual that much time to plan their celebration-or commiseration-over the fate of a passel of pot-related bills legislators are mulling this year. Though the proposed measures aren't designated "House Bill 420," the Nose, whose nares are flared over the overdue changes envisioned, thinks they may as well be.

Still, the Nose isn't holding our hits that much change will make the books. Medical-marijuana users and their caregivers seem the most likely to receive some solace, along with those caught holding small amounts. But with the pro-pot zeitgeist in the air in Colorado and Washington, where recreational use was legalized by referenda last year, as well as other liberalizing measures taken in many other parts of the country in recent years, any steps Maryland lawmakers take to liberalize pot laws are part of a larger national pattern.

Perhaps the time has come for the pattern to go local too. Baltimore City legislators' names, representing five of the city's six districts, are all over pro-pot legislation this year in Annapolis. Given this widespread acceptability among the city's political class, the Nose thinks the Baltimore City Council has sufficient cover to consider pushing some ordinance-easing of its own. It seems increasingly inevitable that a day will come when harmless heads can grow and smoke their own at home without fear of The Man, as long as they don't drive high or deal dope without a license.

The roster of pro-pot city legislators includes Del. Curtis Anderson (D-43rd District), the city delegation's chairman, whose House Bill 1453 would essentially treat herb as a regulated and taxed commodity, like alcohol. Signing on to help push this recreational-use bill are city delegates Jill Carter (D-41st District), Cheryl Glenn (D-45th District), and Nathaniel Oaks (D-41st District). The same four, plus Del. Barbara Robinson (D-40th District), want to legalize medical marijuana (House Bill 302), while Glenn's effort to provide legal cover for med-pot caregivers accused of dope crimes (House Bill 180) is aided by co-sponsorship from Dels. Anderson, Carter, Oaks, Robinson, Frank Conaway Jr. (D-40th District), and Keiffer Mitchell (D-44th District).

Meanwhile, a bipartisan pot-decriminalizing duo has emerged in the state Senate: Robert Zirkin (D-11th District, Baltimore County) and Allan Kittleman (R-9th District, Carroll and Howard counties). The two are carrying Senate Bill 297, which would make possessing 10 grams of weed or less a civil offense carrying a maximum $100 fine rather than a criminal one punishable by, at most, 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The measure is faring well in the Senate, though, as with any legislation, it's hard to read the tea leaves as to its ultimate fate.

The move to legalize medical marijuana got a boost when Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration recently withdrew its opposition. Currently, Maryland law allows for medical necessity to be used as a defense for those charged with violation of weed laws, but provides no path for such users to score dope legally. This measure would open that path by establishing "compassion centers" that would serve as dispensaries to users and their caregivers, with the state issuing licenses and providing oversight for production and distribution. The framework envisioned-already put in place in 16 other states and the District of Columbia-is put forth in three bills: Glenn's House Bill 302, and House Bills 1100 and 1101, brought by Del. Dan Morhaim (D-11th District, Baltimore County). Which one moves the furthest-or even becomes law-remains to be seen.

If a set of companion bills becomes law-House Bill 180/Senate Bill 580-people caught carrying weed or paraphernalia intended for med-pot patients in their care can raise that fact as a defense against criminal charges.

Anderson's recreational-weed bill to tax and regulate it like booze was scheduled for a March 19 Judiciary Committee hearing, after the Nose puts this copy to bed. We'd venture to guess, though, that its supporters' hazy gazes were met with some furrowed brows and head-scratching among committee members, along with at least a few Cheech and Chong references. Still, the potential for serious new revenue posed by this proposal may help sate naysayers' cotton mouth to some degree.

But while Anderson's piece is likely this year's favorite among Maryland heads, even the highest among them would have to admit to low expectations for passage. Any movement at all toward increased liberalization, though, is surely going to make for a smoky 4:20 P.M. this April 20.

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