Marylanders stopped by police could carry up to an ounce of marijuana and only face civil fines under a bill the state Senate passed Monday night.
But it would be a crime to smoke while driving or riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle.
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, called it “a push and a pull” policy change, as it nearly triples the amount of marijuana that would trigger criminal charges but also puts marijuana on par with alcohol when it comes to concerns about driving under the influence.
The bill’s passage, by a 36-11 vote, comes as drug policy advocates press the legislature to further loosen the state’s stance on marijuana. The state decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in 2014.
Bills are pending in the General Assembly to ask voters whether marijuana should become legal under the Maryland constitution, but legislative leaders have said they don’t expect them to advance this year.
The relatively more modest proposal passed Monday proved more palatable, at least in the Senate. But Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, a Harford County Republican, said he was voting against the bill because an ounce of marijuana is too high a threshold.
“If you decriminalize enough, you’ve essentially legalized,” he said.
Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that while he does not support legalization of marijuana either, he was voting for the bill.
“This is about whether you should go to jail for smoking marijuana,” he said. “These cells should be for violent offenders.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he was voting against the bill. Amid concerns about opioid overdoses, loosening restrictions on another drug is “going the opposite way,” he said.
Zirkin, also a Baltimore County Democrat, said the increased threshold puts Maryland in line with the other 22 states that have decriminalized possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana. Current state law allows up to 10 grams, and an ounce is about 28 grams.
The bill now advances to the House, where a committee set the criminal threshhold at 10 grams three years ago.
“The randomness of 10 grams, it just doesn’t correspond to anything,” he said. “It was a number picked out of the sky by the House Judiciary committee.”