The road to marijuana legalization did not come easy for Colorado and Washington State. Both endured negative publicity from the national media and propaganda campaigns from various lobbyist groups (alcohol being a major one). And even in the face of increased tax revenues and dropping crime rates, and lower teenage usage rates, these states continue to deal with uncertainly regarding federal drug laws. The current administration and justice department still have not taken a truly definitive stance on state marijuana laws going forward, which creates an unsettling environment where state and federal laws are completely contradictory. But in spite of theses challenges, two new jurisdictions have recently entered the legal marijuana fray. A week ago pot officially became legal in Alaska, and last Thursday Washington D.C. took the plunge as well. Legalized marijuana in Alaska will probably take a similar path to that of Colorado and Washington State, albeit few years behind. There are no immediate plans for dispensaries to open in the 49th state, so you won't be able to legally buy or sell pot there at least a year. On the other hand, D.C.'s new marijuana law is not like Colorado and Washington's, and the city now faces unique challenges that could make last Thursday's celebration short lived.
It almost seems like a crime in and of itself. A police officer arrests a person for suspicion of committing a drug offense. Then a few hours (hopefully not longer) later upon being released he or she finds out that the police have kept some of their property. Property that is entirely legal on its own. Typically it's something small like a few bucks or a cell phone. But in some cases it could be thousands of dollars, a car, boat, or even a house. Time and time again the courts have upheld law enforcement's right to confiscate a suspect's property. It is widely understood, if not accepted, that a cop can take a person's otherwise legal property if that officer believes it will be evidence in a criminal prosecution. Unfortunately this is hardly the only justification an officer needs to take a citizen's stuff. For decades the law of civil forfeiture has driven defendant's, their families, and criminal defense lawyers crazy. In a nutshell forfeiture gives police the right to confiscate property they believe is being used to further criminal activity. The definition is vague and general, and the standard of proof is low. Forfeiture is easily abused by law enforcement, and when it is, legally thievery is the result.
The Maryland Firearms Safety Act survived one challenge to its constitutionality back in the summer, and now the controversial law faces yet another hurdle next month. The act, which went into effect back in October, garnered national attention for being one of the strictest of its kind. Several types of handguns, assault rifles, and high capacity magazines received an all out ban, and increased security restrictions were placed on gun purchasers. Second Amendment lobbyist groups immediately admonished the gun law, and backed a lawsuit against its constitutionality in federal court. The plaintiffs argued that the Act infringed upon the rights guaranteed by the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, and was therefore unconstitutional. But a federal district court judge in Baltimore disagreed and ruled that the act, while restrictive, was crafted in a way as to not be overly burdensome. Soon after word came down from the district court the gun rights advocates filed an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court in Richmond. Now after couple months of downtime it appears we are a little bit closer to learning the final fate of the gun law.
A school offering a marijuana business class will hardly make headlines in a few years when pot is legalized for recreational use. Considering the market potential for legal marijuana, as much as 10 billion dollars per year by some estimates, it would be a disservice for an academic institution to not offer this type of class in the future. But we're not quite there yet, and therefore it still comes as a surprise to see a class titled "Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Emerging Markets: Marijuana Legalization" to show up in a course catalog at a local public college. The school is Anne Arundel Community College, and the three-credit class is already in the second week of meeting. It's a small class, limited to 25 students, but enrollment is full, and you can expect few empty seats when the class meets each Monday and Wednesday afternoon of the spring term. A glance at the course summary reveals topics such as the tax impact and the legal and regulatory challenges facing the industry. But as a business course, the main focus is simply how to get a piece of the 10 billion dollar marijuana pie.
The 2015 legislative session is officially underway, which means our focus will shift slightly from reporting Blog worthy criminal incidents to updating readers with the progress of new potential criminal laws. Last year was quite eventful from a criminal law standpoint; simple possession of marijuana was transformed from an offense punishable by 90 days in jail to a civil infraction punishable by a fine of a hundred bucks, and the medical marijuana program was given legs after a year in the doldrums. While medical marijuana is still a year or so away from being operational, the decriminalization law has already impacted hundreds of would be defendants, cops, state's attorneys, and of course criminal defense lawyers. It is difficult to imagine that this year's session will produce the same type of splash, but advocates of legalized recreational marijuana would certainly beg to differ.
Armed robberies typically last a matter of seconds, and the majority end without anyone suffering physical injury. But the psychological stress on victims and other witnesses of this violent crime can have devastating and lasting effects. These effects are well documented, often times resulting in posttraumatic stress disorder, and other life altering ailments for the victims and witnesses. For obvious reasons we never care to dissect the psychological impacts of a robbery on the actual perpetrator. It is simply impossible to for most people to sympathize with someone who has just terrorized the innocent. But a recent incident in Harford County provided some insight on just how stressful it can be on the body to commit this violent crime.
Years of rigid officer schedules and mandatory five-day workweeks have hindered the Baltimore City Police Department's ability to fight crime in the most effective way possible. But starting this past week the department has implemented a dramatically modified system to determine when and where its officers will patrol the streets. The major changes include the adoption of a four-day workweek with 10-hour days, and the abolishment of a provision that once required the same number of cops to be on duty during all shifts throughout the week, regardless of demand for their services. The city and the police union struck a deal with these two modifications plus a 13 percent raise for all officers, which the city declares it will offset by eliminating over 200 vacant positions. Officials are confident that their new system will cut costs and reduce crime; a claim they say is backed by data from a test run of the new system just last year.
Over the last few decades mail became one of the preferred methods of transporting marijuana across state lines. The carrier was irrelevant, as dealers and smokers would typically use FedEx, UPS, and the postal service to transport their stash across the country. Law enforcement eventually caught on, and began targeting packages at sorting facilities of all the major mail carriers. The targeted packages usually met a certain criteria; they were often from states such as California, Oregon, and Colorado, where marijuana was plentiful and relatively cheap. The packages also fit size and weight criteria, and had common markings and similar types of intended addresses. Upon identifying suspicious packages, law enforcement would order a K9 sniff. If law enforcement officers confirmed their suspicions, they would react in a variety of different ways depending on the agency, suspect, and the amount of pot at issue.
Baltimore still has a long way to go, but it appears the city is heading in the right direction when it comes to fighting crime. City officials including the mayor and police commissioner recently kicked off 2015 with a press conference announcing a decline in Baltimore's overall crime rate. The decline from 2013 to 2014 includes both violent offenses and property crimes such as murder, robbery, and burglary. The number of murders and non-fatal shootings both decreased roughly ten percent. There were 235 murders and 402 shootings in 2013, while there were 211 and 371 respectively this past year. The murder total is the second lowest in decades, with only 2011 seeing a lower number in recent history with 196. The 80's and 90's consistently saw homicide numbers in the 300's, while the beginning of this century mostly saw numbers in the high 200's.
Environmental crimes are rarely the most newsworthy criminal justice stories, but when they do surface most people are surprised by their severity. Illegal dumping is probably the most common environmental crime, and it is normal to see defendants fined or even jailed in these cases. They rarely make the news though, unless the facts are so egregious as to put people in direct danger. Most cases consist of dumping construction debris in the woods or the water in order to avoid paying proper disposal costs. Not the most glamorous stories for the media, unlike cases involving large scale illegal hunting or fishing operations, which have proven to be more attractive to media outlets. Maybe it's for the shock value that accompanies a headline where jail time and fishing are in the same sentence, or maybe because it's just plain old interesting. Whatever the reason, the media recently picked up on one of these cases involving a striped bass harvest and sale operation. According to reports, a Maryland fisherman was recently sentenced to prison in a Chesapeake Bay fishing scandal, which occurred in a sparsely populated area of Talbot County. The sentence includes a year in federal prison, followed by home detention, probation, and hefty fines.
Marijuana infused foods, also known simply as edibles, are becoming increasingly popular for pot users of all ages. These products have been in existence for decades, but for the most part were only available in concert parking lots or as a rare party favor. Edibles were never considered a mainstream way to ingest marijuana, but this changed with the dramatic rise of medical marijuana and new patients it attracted. With the opening of state regulated medical marijuana dispensaries came an increased demand for edibles. Medical marijuana patients with an aversion or even a physical inability to smoke needed a way to ingest the beneficial drug without subjecting themselves to the unwanted smoke. The answer was edibles, and now the demand has created an entire industry for edible marijuana.
Governor Elect Hogan is not scheduled to begin his term as Maryland's top politician for another 6 weeks, but he has already publicized a few of his plans for gun control and drug abuse. The infamous Maryland firearms safety act appears to be safe for the foreseeable future, as Hogan's camp is on record stating they would not take action to try to repeal the law. On the other hand, the act still faces scrutiny from the federal court system. The hardline gun law was upheld in the United States District Court in Baltimore over the summer, but is now before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The federal appellate judges will examine whether the firearms safety act infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and will consider the briefs of twenty-one different states, including Florida and Michigan, who have filed briefs urging the court to overturn the law. The Governor Elect has not publicized a detailed opinion of the firearms safety act, and will likely wait until he has taken office to do so. But Hogan has been clear thus far that his office will not challenge the incoming attorney general or the predominantly democratic legislature to repeal the law.
Hundreds of people are arrested or indicted on felony charges each day in Maryland. Theses cases almost never cause news headlines unless the facts of the case are particularly egregious, or if the defendant is some sort of public figure. Police officers, politicians, athletes, and other entertainers are all fair game for the media if they happen to stray on the wrong side of the law. We've become accustomed to it, and are hardly shocked by the headlines anymore. This is especially true when it comes to Baltimore City, where the last few years have seen dozens of police, corrections officers, and professional athletes charged with crimes. But recently, another type of public figure was charged with a crime, and you may find it hard to simply brush this one off. The Office of the State Prosecutor announced last week that a former public school principal has been indicted on multiple counts of felony theft, theft scheme, and embezzlement, which allegedly took place while she was employed at Western High School. The ex-principal is set to appear in the Baltimore City circuit court in mid January for her arraignment. If convicted she faces numerous years in prison, as well as fines, restitution payments, and reporting probation. The charges themselves are enough to make any parent, taxpayer, or anyone else for that matter cringe, but it gets much worse when you read that the victims of this theft scheme were the very students she was hired to look after.
After months of debate, and a fair amount of frustration the medical marijuana commission finally approved its draft regulations. A few deadlines were pushed back, and licensing fees may be higher than some investors had hoped, but in the end Maryland is on track to have a functioning medical marijuana program within the next year. Wait scratch that. Within the next two years. Maybe. See the program's draft regulations may be out of the committee's tight grasp, but now they still must be approved by the state health secretary, and a panel of lawmakers including state senators and delegates. Both the secretary and the lawmakers could propose modifications to the regulations, which of course would cause further delays. Only when these two parties finally approve the regulations can potential growers and dispensary owners begin to file their applications, and the real logjam may occur at this point.
Just months ago United State's Attorney's Office praised the work of law enforcement in ending a complex Washington D.C. heroin and cocaine trafficking ring. The investigation and subsequent prosecution led to 14 felony convictions, with most of the defendants ending up with prison sentences. But as of this week, only one defendant remains jailed, and the other 13 have been released from prison. Last week a federal judge threw their cases out upon recommendation by the very prosecutors who worked diligently to secure these convictions less than a year ago. The exact reasons for this dramatic sequence of events is unknown, but we do know that at least one corrupt FBI agent participated in the investigation. This particular agent, a 33-year old named Matthew Lowry, was found slumped over in his car with evidence bags containing heroin and firearms seized from the investigation. While this incident alone could create enough suspicion of wrongdoing to warrant new trials in the related cases, it's more likely that the prosecutors became aware of far greater corruption. Corruption that prompted immediate and unfettered action.