The dramatic comeback for marijuana decriminalization in Maryland is now complete, as the Governor signed the General Assembly's bill into law earlier this week. Come October it will no longer be a crime for a person over the age of 18 to possess less than ten grams of pot. Despite the overwhelming support of state lawmakers (the bill easily passed in the house and senate) and the public, decriminalization is not without its detractors. State prosecutors are one group that has expressed criticism over the new law, and their reasons are not so obvious. You would expect state prosecutors to have a more conservative, less tolerant approach to certain behaviors, which our laws have historically deemed as crimes. On the other hand, the prosecutor's criticism of decriminalization is not simply general moral opposition, but rather concern over the implementation of this new law. A close examination of the bill certainly supports some of these concerns.
This week the state senate for a second time voted to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. The bill included a few modifications, which the house inserted over the weekend in order to satisfy enough delegates. Among the modifications is a provision that escalates the fine from $100 to $250 and then to $500 for a second and third offense respectively. In addition anyone who is charged with a third or subsequent offense will be summoned to appear for court, and if convicted may be ordered to complete a drug evaluation and follow up treatment. Offenders under the age of 21 who are charged with civil pot possession will also be summoned to appear in court. Simple pot possession for anyone under 18 is still a criminal offense that would be handled in the juvenile system. There is also a new provision that states all the fines collected by the District Court for these citations will go directly to the state health department, and can only be used for drug education programs. Governor O'Malley has already said that he'll sign the bill into law when it crosses his desk, so decriminalization is certain to be law in Maryland within the next few months. However it's not so certain just how the law will be implemented, and how efficiently the court system will be able to handle these new civil marijuana citations.
Marijuana dominated the media attention in the first three months of this year's legislative session, but state lawmakers once again made little progress when it came time to vote. Today though, delegates will convene to conduct one last vote before we can say that the 2014 proposals to decriminalize pot in Maryland are shelved for the year. This past week a House committee shot down any hope of major marijuana reform taking place in the near future. This includes a pair of legalization bills sponsored by Delegate Anderson and Senator Raskin, and a pair of more publicized decriminalization bills sponsored by Delegate Mizeur and Senator Zirkin. Unfortunately the legalization bills never really had a chance of gaining momentum, but decriminalization actually won the senate's approval, and by a wide margin. House support proved too difficult to garner, as decriminalization failed to make it out of committee and to the house floor for a full vote. But in a recent development, the bill received some last minute revival efforts, and lawmakers are meeting as this post is being published. So as of right now we still may see a bill to make simple pot possession a civil infraction actually come to O'Malley's desk.
When the General Assembly passed the first medical marijuana law in state history last year it was immediately criticized for being a pipe dream, pun intended. The criticisms proved entirely warranted, as Maryland is no closer to a functioning medical marijuana program than it was before the governor signed the bill into law. The current program is filled with red tape including overbearing regulation and reporting requirements, and it limits medical marijuana providers to research hospitals. Hospitals that are forced to provide data and reports for something they already know, that marijuana does in fact serve a medical purpose. As a result of the convoluted web of regulations exactly zero research hospitals have signed on, and the program as gone nowhere since October 1st. But despite never getting off the ground, last year's medical marijuana law may have been the shot in the arm our state needed to build momentum toward enacting a law that is reasonably likely to function. It might be giving lawmakers too much credit to say this was their intended purpose, to pass a law just for the sake of putting something including the words marijuana and legal on the books in order to start the conversation. On the other hand, this week we received the first glimpse from lawmakers that Maryland really may be moving toward providing legal pot to those who need it, and now a plan dating back to last year actually seems plausible. The glimpse came in the form of a landslide vote in the state senate to dramatically overhaul last year's medical marijuana law.
Yes, Baltimore had Cal Ripken and still boasts one of the nicest baseball stadiums in the country. The Ravens have won two championships in the last 15 years, and are one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. The inner harbor is a global tourist attraction, and the crabs and pit beef are worth a visit alone. But unfortunately these are not generally the first things that come to mind when you ask an outsider about the city. Over the last two decades Baltimore has gained a great deal of notoriety for its high crime rate, and abundance of drug dealers and addicts. Hollywood took notice, as HBO's The Wire was one of the most popular series in the history of the network. Although it never received a major industry award such as an Emmy, the show's influence is still widespread. It was Obama's favorite, and if you ask any 20-40 year old non-Baltimorean what comes to mind when they think about the city chances are you'll hear something about The Wire. And when gang violence and drug dealing, especially heroin, are the topics most associated with a city then there are problems with that city, unless of course the notoriety is unfounded. But recent statistics back the regrettable perception that Baltimore is indeed on of the heroin capitals of the country.
It has been a relatively quiet week in the Maryland Legislature, but there were a few headlines coming out of Annapolis. On the marijuana front, a decriminalization bill co-sponsored by Senators Zirkin and Kittleman passed the Judicial Proceedings Committee by a vote of 8-3. Senate Bill 364 is now headed to the Senate floor for a full vote, though the real fate of the bill will likely come down to whether the House has changed its tune since rejecting a similar proposal last year. Bill 364 only decriminalizes possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, which is currently a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum jail sentence of 90 days and a $500 fine. The proposal would transform possession of less than ten grams from a criminal case to a civil case, and the maximum punishment would be a fine of $100. A person who receives a pot citation would be able to pay the fine to close out the case, or could elect a trial. The trial process would be similar to a traffic ticket, where the district court would set a trial date and subpoena the issuing officer. Failure to show up for an elected trial date would constitute a misdemeanor under the new bill. There are no specific provisions that address increased penalties for repeat offenders, and presumably a person could keep racking up citations and the maximum penalty would never change.
The bail review process in Maryland could be headed for some major changes as the current system is slated for review in the Court of Appeals on March 7th. Nearly eight years ago a group of detainees in the Baltimore City jail filed a class action lawsuit challenging the state's bail review process. Specifically they challenged the first appearance procedure where a recently arrested defendant goes before a court commissioner for a bail review. Under the current state law no detainee is entitled to an attorney at this first appearance, and the commissioner is free to make whatever determination he or she decides. Court commissioners are not judges or lawyers, and no legal experience is required for the job. The ones who typically suffer are poor, non violent offenders who can be forced to sit in custody for days or even weeks on bails as low as a few hundred dollars. But it's not only the poor who suffer, as some commissioners have the tendency to impose egregiously high bail amounts for cases without putting forth the effort to completely examine the circumstances of the case. The issue scheduled for debate is whether having an attorney present at the commissioner bail reviews would prevent unjust and unnecessary pre-trial detention, and if the cost to provide lawyers at these hearings is worth the potential benefit.
It seems that sparks fly and countless news headlines appear each time the marijuana debate hits the floors of the state legislature. This past week was no different, as a spirited discussion drew unprecedented crowds, which spilled into the hallways of the Maryland State House. The issue of changing the state's archaic and costly pot laws has been the same for the past couple of years, but new and unpredictable drama arises each time this topic is up for discussion. On Tuesday in Annapolis, state lawmakers were joined by cops, college students, parents, and professionals, and each had strong opinions on the subject. Some of these opinions were based on personal experience, such as the parent who testified that her son's career opportunities had been damaged by a prior arrest possession of about ten grams of marijuana. There was also a college student who described the embarrassing and degrading experience of being arrested, strip searched, and jailed for pot possession.
The state Senate recently passed a bill that would ban the sale of grain alcohol throughout Maryland. The bill passed by a wide margin, 37 to 10 to be exact, and now awaits a vote in the House of Delegates before reaching the governor's desk. This same bill passed the Senate each of the last two legislative sessions, but failed to gain momentum, and ultimately stalled in the House. This year may be different though, as the chairman of a House subcommittee on alcoholic beverages has publicly backed the bill and will no doubt try to convince his colleagues of the bill's merit. The main goal of the grain alcohol ban is to lower the risk of binge drinking fatalities, injuries, and legal incidents such as DUI and even date rape on college campuses where grain alcohol is popular. The product is most commonly sold under the label of Everclear, which is 190 proof or 95 percent alcohol. It is commonly mixed with fruit juice or other mixers and placed in a large cooler for consumption. The argument from supporters of the ban is that college students have no idea how much alcohol there are consuming, and often drink more than they intend. Whether the grain alcohol itself is to blame is a question that is subject to much debate.
The legislative session has been underway for more than a month, and few fireworks have come out of Annapolis. Occasionally a story pops up about a group standing in opposition of Maryland's strict gun laws. This past month we have seen a proposal to repeal a pro-slavery law from the 1800's. There have also been the somewhat odd headlines such as the five-cent chicken tax proposed by the General Assembly, and Delegate Dwyer's ridiculous proposal that all active lawmakers be subject to a minimum mandatory jail sentence upon receiving a DUI conviction. But just like last year, the real stories coming out of our state's capital have to do with marijuana legislation. The Blog didn't set out to exclusively cover the progress of pot laws in Maryland, and we are by no means an exclusive marijuana blog. In fact we would love to spread the articles across various criminal law topics such as DUI, gun control, and police corruption. But marijuana politics simply cannot be ignored, and this week is no different. While our readers fully are aware of democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur stance on the issue (for those who have not read our most recent post) two more prominent political figures have come out in support of changing our marijuana laws, and changing them now.
A few months back we posted an article about a Maryland gubernatorial candidate who came out in support of marijuana legalization. Heather Mizeur, who is currently serving as a delegate in the state legislature, made numerous headlines with her public stance on legalized pot. Now the democrat from Montgomery County is in the news again for powerful opinions on the criminal justice system. Mizeur recently released a detailed plan, which calls for modifications to sentencing guidelines and incarceration terms of adult and juvenile criminal defendants. The plan questions the effectiveness of Maryland's so called tough on crime policies that have resulted in thousands of prison sentences for non-violent offenders. Mizeur refers to her plan as taking a holistic and transformational approach to the criminal justice system. In other words, she believes that rehabilitation and crime prevention, and not punishment, should be the main function of the criminal justice system. This approach is commonplace in many liberal states across the country, but the current administration, including O'Malley and Brown, do not share the same sentiments on crime and punishment.
One of the busiest and most densely populated areas in Baltimore County is quickly becoming one of the most dangerous as well. Towson is the county seat or capital of Maryland's third largest county, and is home to over 55,000 residents. The population is on the steady incline, and new residential development projects promise to bring a dramatic population increase over the next decade. Towson is typically regarded as a low crime area, and although the thousands of college students studying at Towson University and Goucher College can cause a little trouble from time to time, most of the crime in the area is limited to minor drug and alcohol offenses. But recent figures released by the Baltimore County Police suggest that violent crime may be rearing its ugly head in the area.
It certainly did not take long for the first marijuana focused headlines to come out of Annapolis. The legislature has only been in session for a couple of weeks, and there are already two prospective pot laws generating chatter among state law makers. The first being a proposal to legalize, tax and regulate the drug similar to what Colorado and Washington state have already done. A democratic state senator from Montgomery County and a democratic delegate from Baltimore City have co-sponsored the proposal. The proposed law is entitled The Marijuana Control Act of 2014, and one of its main goals is to take money out of the hands of gangs and drug dealers and channel this revenue into public causes. Tax money from the legal sale of marijuana would be earmarked for school construction, drug education, and drug and alcohol treatment programs. In its current form the Marijuana Control Act would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot for their own personal use, and also allow growing up to six plants within the home. Smoking in public would still be illegal, as would driving under the influence, and unauthorized sale or distribution.
The 2014 Maryland Legislature is officially open for business, and day one provided a few headlines worth discussing. The most notable being governor O'Malley's comments in opposition of marijuana legalization. O'Malley was quoted as saying he is "not much in favor of it", and that it could be "a gateway to even more harmful behavior". The democratic governor spoke about the damaging consequences of drug addiction, particularly in Baltimore, where he was once mayor. The issue of legalized pot is especially relevant this week in light of Colorado recently allowing the first retail purchasing of marijuana in almost 80 years. It appears from the governor's comments that Maryland is not headed in the same direction, at least not this year. But some lawmakers, such as the state senate's president, firmly believe that legalization will eventually become realty in our state. Decriminalization, which still makes pot possession illegal but not a jailable offense, may be in the cards much sooner. A decriminalization law would likely subject offenders to civil fines and possible drug treatment, but would take incarceration off the table. This approach has already gained support from the state senate, and could potentially garner increased support form the house this year. The governor has not offered his opinion on decriminalization specifically. The official word from O'Malley's office is that he would consider such a bill if it passes the general assembly. In addition, the governor did affirmatively state he would consider modifications to the state medical marijuana program, which is light-years away from becoming functional.
For thousands of marijuana smokers in Colorado and around the country, 9 a.m. on New Years Day was exponentially more exciting than midnight the night before. The morning of January 1st, 2014 marked the first time in recent American history that stores were able to legally sell pot to the public. Any adult can now walk up to the counter of one of the state's 136 marijuana retail shops and purchase up to an ounce of pot for their personal use. Out of state residents are restricted to buying one quarter of an ounce, but regardless shopkeepers will not ask for prescriptions and medical use cards are no longer necessary, as the buyer simply needs to be 21. Many of the state's licensed shops experienced a good bit of fanfare upon selling their first legal bags, as media outlets were on hand all over the state. Bright lights and cameras surrounded the first purchase, which was made by a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is not a valid disability under many state's current medical marijuana laws, and was not covered by Colorado's.