The General Assembly is meeting today as the session rushes to its Monday night close. Many days the General Assembly does not attract much attention, even if its decisions have a large day-to-day impact on Marylanders.
This is not one of those days. The heat and light will revolve around the fierce debate in the House over marijuana decriminalization. Washington Post Reporter John Wagner and Frederick Kunkle have a fine article summarizing the state of play.
The Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Bobby Zirkin to decriminalize marijuana on March 14 by a vote of 36-8 with 7 Republicans joining 29 Democrats in voting green. The 8 red votes were split evenly between the two parties.
Led by Chairman Joe Vallario, the Judiciary Committee proceeded to gut the bill by replacing it with text that created a task force to study the question. They then voted 14-5 to report on the bill favorably to the full House.
The decision to report favorably on any bill at all was an interesting one. Last year, the Committee let a similar bill die last year without a vote. This year, they did the same to another decriminalization bill and also killed off a legalization bill.
The favorable report on the bill appears to have provided a vehicle for decriminalization proponents to attempt to roll the Judiciary Committee in the full house. (Perhaps a sign of a crack in Chairman Vallario’s control?) Del. Kieffer Mitchell has offered an amendment to strike all of the House changes.
At the request of Del. Vallario, the House special ordered the bill for today when the House will take it up again. Wagner and Kunkle report that the vote in the House is expected to be close with negotiations occurring to tighten the bill in order to attract enough supporters to pass:
Closed-door discussions late in the day Friday focused on ways to tighten several provisions in the Senate bill, according to several delegates. For example, the Senate bill would require young people caught with marijuana to appear before a judge, who could order treatment and counseling. Delegates were considering making the age that triggers that provision under 21, rather than under 18.
Interestingly, at least some committee members, such as AG Candidate Aisha Braveboy, appear inclined to break with tradition by voting against their committee’s decision. Several other delegates face a similar choice, such as Del. Jeff Waldstreicher who has good relations with his chair. No doubt his constituents–and his primary opponents–will look with interest which way he jumps.
You can listen to the House proceedings online if you’re so inclined.
Thinking for the long term beyond this particular bill is the issue of Joe Vallario’s future as chair of the Judiciary Committee. Speaker Busch keeps a delegate who not only votes against his caucus but works repeatedly to thwart its goals at his peril.
Similar situations in Congress in which conservative Democrats used their seniority to control committees inspired a revolt that led to rules reform in the 1970s. All Democratic committee chairs must now be approved by the full Caucus.
Vallario has chaired this committee for over two decades. But this long tenure generates frustration as well as respect from younger delegates restless to advance. Seems like an opportunity for the Speaker to satisfy some pent up ambition. Might solve two problems at once.