General Assembly Faces Busy Agenda Come January

800px-2006 09 19 - Annapolis - Sunset over State HouseAs the General Assembly’s legislative session quickly approaches, legislators from across the state are preparing to take on issues including furthering marijuana reform and the placement of body cameras on police officers.

During the 2014 legislative session the General Assembly raised minimum wage and decriminalized marijuana. Now, the majority-Democrat legislature will have to work with Republican Governor-Elect Larry Hogan, all while dealing with a budget deficit as revenues are expected to decrease by $600 million.

One issue expected to come up is continued reformation of the state’s marijuana legislation.

Supporters of marijuana reform say there will most likely be legislation addressing marijuana paraphernalia, access to medical marijuana and legalization of recreational use of marijuana for the 2015 legislative session. Earlier this year, the General Assembly decriminalized the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, which went into effect October. However, the possession of marijuana paraphernalia, such as rolling paper, is still a criminal offense and punishable by a maximum of a $500 criminal fine.

“It doesn’t make a lot of legal sense to have paraphernalia be criminal and marijuana is not,” said Senator Bobby Zirkin (D-11), chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Making crime out of having plastic bags doesn’t make sense to me.”

Zirkin said they kept the paraphernalia offense in the bill earlier this year to garner support.

“I’m not sure we’d take it out of the statue altogether or turn [paraphernalia] into a civil offense,” Zirkin said.

“We’re concerned that certain law enforcement officers who don’t agree with why we decriminalized marijuana will charge someone for the possession of marijuana,” said Rachelle Yeung, the Maryland political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization in the nation for ending the prohibition of marijuana.

“There are collateral consequences for possessing marijuana. It can burden someone for life, make it more difficult for them to obtain employment, obtain student loans or housing, even higher education,” Yeung said.

Zirkin also said a bill addressing the access of medical marijuana will be introduced for the second year in a row, Zirkin said.

In 2013, the General Assembly approved a bill allowing residents with serious illnesses to obtain medical marijuana through state-regulated programs administered by academic medical research centers. In 2014, the legislature reworked the law to form a commission to set regulations governing the buying and selling of medical marijuana.

“I think the commission put in place steep hurdles, that in my opinion are going to keep the program from getting off the ground,” Zirkin said. “Patients are in need of relief and not getting it. I don’t see any particular reason why we’re going to continue to wait.”

Zirkin also said that this year, the General Assembly would have more data and information to consider with the legalization of recreational marijuana in states like Colorado.

“This is an issue we should continuously be taking a look at, what other states are doing. It’s something people are interested in,” Zirkin said.

Another issue likely to come up will be the implementation of a statewide program to place body cameras on police officers, following the fallout from police-related deaths in New York City and Ferguson, Miss.

Delegate Joseph Vallario Jr. (D-27A), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Zirkin said there might be legislation for state-mandated police body cameras, but did not have specifics about how it would be implemented.

The cost, how the camera is worn and when police can record footage have been top considerations as local jurisdictions in the state consider using police body cameras or already have them in place. Fifteen police departments in the state - Hyattsville, Laurel, Colmar Manor, Pocomoke City, Greensboro, Snow Hill, Mt. Ranier, Crisfield, Hurlock, Berwyn Heights, the Baltimore Environmental Police, Princess Anne, Cambridge, Cheverly and Cambridge - already use police body cameras, according to a recent state workgroup report studying police-worn body cameras.

The Sentinel reported earlier this month that the Prince George’s County Police Department and Montgomery County Police Department are considering pilot programs for using body cameras. The University of Maryland College Park Police has also said they will start using body cameras next year.

Vallario said the legislature will continue to deal with a court ruling made earlier this year which gives criminal defendants a right to counsel at bail hearings. In response to the court ruling, the State’s Attorney’s Office wanted a presence as well, the Sentinel reported in October.

As a result, the State’s Attorney’s Office formed 24/7 charging units to assign prosecutors to assist police officers in filing charging documents, or paperwork for arrests. In addition to making sure cases are charged properly.

“As a result of that, we’re getting behind in getting hearings and not seeing commissioners for 17 hours. We’ll try to address that statewide,” Vallario said.

Also expected to come up, according to Del. Kumar Barve (D-17) is the stormwater runoff fee, known by many as the “rain tax.” In 2014, Sen. Allan Kittleman (D-9) proposed a repeal of the law, which requires to the 10 largest jurisdictions in the state to impose the fee on residents.

Barve said he has concerns Hogan, a Republican, does not support the rain tax.

“The Chesapeake Bay is a primary asset, we should protect it,” Barve said.


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