We discussed in the last blog entry that state lawmakers were planning to introduce new legislation on medical and synthetic marijuana. These bills are still in the works, but the big news coming out of the state house is that a brand new marijuana decriminalization bill is scheduled for a debate today in Annapolis. Maryland Senate Bill 297, proposed by state senator Zirkin, would effectively reduce the punishment for simple possession of marijuana from a maximum 90 days in jail to a maximum $100 fine. In addition simple possession, which is defined as less than 10 grams of the drug, would no longer be part of the state criminal code. Much like a parking ticket, violators of the proposed law would only be subject to a civil fine and would not be at risk of jail time or a criminal conviction. The hearing was scheduled for debate this afternoon, and promises to feature spirited testimony from a variety of politicians, former law enforcement officers, and even economists.
Among those scheduled to testify at today's hearing is Neill Franklin, who is a 34 year veteran of the Baltimore Police and the Maryland State Police. Mr. Franklin spent the majority of his law enforcement career in narcotics and is on record saying that the current state marijuana laws force police officers to waste hour upon hour making arrests for minor offenses such as simple possession. He adds that police would be much better served by dedicating their time to solving serious crimes such as murder, rape, and burglary. In reality, most cops still can choose not to bust a person for smoking a joint in their car, and they don't have to call a K9 unit every time they smell the odor of burnt weed, but his statement does hold some truth. There certainly are many cops out there who took the job to bust actual criminals, rather than two dudes driving home from a Phish concert. Mr. Franklin is also the executive director of a legalization lobbyist group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. LEAP is an international organization made up of former and current cops, corrections officers, judges, and federal agents who speak about the failures of our multi decade long war on drugs in various forums, including in front of state legislatures.
Today's testimony in Annapolis is supposed to include a presentation of a recent study by a Harvard economist, who concluded that Maryland spends roughly $236 million each year enforcing marijuana laws. A large majority of this figure is dedicated to prosecuting these cases in our criminal courts. Decriminalization of small amounts of pot would decrease the caseload for state prosecutors and public defenders, and generally shorten the district and circuit court dockets. Others argue that the fiscal impact on the new law would be minimal. If Maryland passes bill 297 it would be the sixteenth state to decriminalize small amounts of the drug, and would continue to lay the foundation for federal reform. The blog will continue to update the progress of this bill as it travels through the legislature in the coming weeks.
Benjamin Herbst is a Baltimore drug crime lawyer who has defended hundreds of possession, sale, and trafficking cases. Contact Mr. Herbst anytime at 410-207-2598 for a free consultation about your criminal case.