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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in the spring, the Maryland General Assembly placed a September 15th deadline on the medical marijuana commission to formulate the program's policy. While that deadline may have been slightly ambitious, the goal was undoubtedly to prevent the commission from procrastinating while patients were suffering, and grower and dispensary investors were becoming frustrated. It initially seemed that the commission was doing exactly what lawmakers wanted to avoid, as the only topics up for discussion at the first few meetings were about when the next meetings would take place. Unsurprisingly the original deadline came and went, but the commission insisted it would be ready with the regulations in late October. This past week we once again learned that the commission has asked for more time to finish the job, and now it seems like November 13th will be the day when final policy is proposed. While the first few delays were understandable, as the public had far more constructive criticism than expected, this last delay clearly falls on the commission, who totally neglected a major component of every functioning medical marijuana program.
Soon after the close of each year's legislative session the governor signs dozens of bills into law. The public typically hears about these new laws at the three main stages when the media can report a concrete story. First we read about a bill being introduced in the house or senate, which is usually in January. Then there's an article or two about the bill's passage by the General Assembly a couple months later, and finally we hear about the governor signing on the dotted line in the spring. After the governor signs the bills there is a yearly downtime that usually lasts about six months until the fall when the laws go into effect. In some years there is no buildup to the October 1st effective date because the new laws simply don't generate enough interest. This year is not one of those years. It's the criminal laws that often receive the most attention, and in 2014 there were a host of them that the public and media were following. No new law has received as much press as marijuana decriminalization, and although as times it seemed like a pipedream, as of today we can officially say it is not a crime to possess less than 10 grams of pot in Maryland.
Back in the spring when Maryland's revamped medical marijuana law passed the General Assembly it wasn't just the thousands of patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions that rejoiced. Hundreds of potential investors immediately began to salivate over potential profits from legalized pot here in Maryland. There are millions to be made on the business side of medical marijuana, and with twenty states already selling pot the profits are hardly speculative. At the first few meetings of the medical marijuana commission you couldn't find a parking spot or a seat, and the meeting room was filled to the brim with a mix of suit clad businessmen, dreadlocked hippies, and casually dressed visitors with unidentifiable motives. The meetings were moved from Baltimore to Annapolis to accommodate the larger crowds, but it seems there have been fewer potential investors in attendance as of late. Details about the application process have slowly trickled out to the public, and to some it may seem like an insurmountable task to submit a competitive application for a grower's license. And this past week another not so small detail emerged, which may have turned even more potential growers and distributors away.
As the Medical Marijuana Commission inches closer to establishing a viable program in Maryland, there are still numerous key details that need to be hammered out. The Commission was established soon after the governor signed the revised medical marijuana bill into law, and its fifteen members were tasked with drafting regulations for the program. These regulations were supposed to be handed over to the health secretary and a group of state lawmakers this week, but now it appears the commission will seek public comment before submitting the program regulations for formal review. The commission made the draft regulations available to the public by posting them on the DHMH website, and they have already received abundant feedback. The four page PDF, which can be found here, outlines the application process for obtaining a growers license in Maryland, and the criteria for which applications will be judged. Those reading the draft application for the first time may be surprised just how demanding the process will be, and the commission can afford to be selective considering there will be only fifteen licenses awarded in the next two years.
While Maryland will have its day in October, possession of a small amount of marijuana has officially been decriminalized in Washington D.C. At midnight on Thursday, metropolitan police officers were ordered to keep their handcuffs in their holsters in favor of a citation booklet for all marijuana possession cases less than one ounce. And while there is still uncertainty surrounding the long-term fate of this new law, as it stands today simple possession of pot is punishable by a $25 fine, $50 less than the punishment for littering. D.C. cops have been provided with wallet sized cards for their own reminders, as well as to hand out to the public. The cards provide a general overview of the most important changes that are laid out in the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014. The five bullet points on the card include a line about the fine and the fact that police may confiscate the marijuana, the requirement of disclosing your name to cops upon being cited (and being subject to arrest if you refuse), the fact that smoking in public and possessing more than an ounce is still a crime, a reminder that driving under the influence of drugs is a crime, and that federal officers may still arrest anyone in the District for possession under federal law.
Maryland lawmakers made significant progress in reforming state marijuana laws in the recent legislative session. Starting in October of this year possession of less than 10 grams of pot will no longer be a criminal offense. And the medical marijuana commission is currently planning, albeit slowly, a fully functioning and accessible state sanctioned medical marijuana program. But many in favor of reform, which is well over half the population, are not completely satisfied with the work of our state government. This includes local governments and city and county police departments who have expressed concerns over flaws in the decriminalization law. In a couple months possessing small amounts of marijuana will be a civil infraction just like a speeding ticket. But the law remains unchanged when it comes to marijuana paraphernalia. Cops won't be able to arrest a person for possessing pot, but that pipe, rolling paper, and even the plastic baggie that holds it can trigger a criminal charge. This means that unless something changes smoking marijuana will remain a crime, as anything used to smoke could be considered paraphernalia.
In March of this year the Washington D.C. council passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana, and the mayor immediately signed it into law. City residents had been fighting for marijuana reform for years, although with little to show for their efforts.
Medical marijuana was initiated in D.C. in 2010, but recreational use still fell under the harsh federal controlled substances act, which made possession of any amount of pot punishable by up to a year and jail and a $1,000 fine. Finally though the council and the mayor answered the call of two thirds of the city's population and made simple possession a civil infraction with a maximum fine of $25. But the city government and the vast majority of D.C. residents may have been given a bit of false hope, as decriminalization currently sits in a perilous position. The law must pass through a period of congressional review before it can go into effect, and although that period is ending soon, one motivated Maryland politician has taken steps to block the law from taking effect.
Two years ago Maryland became one of 22 states to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, and just months ago lawmakers modified to the program to make it functional. Many of the other states already have fully functioning medical marijuana programs, with numerous privately owned dispensaries, but Maryland's program is still in the planning stages. As of now it looks like it could be up to 18 months until the first private dispensaries open their doors locally, and when they do, there is now hope that the federal government will stay out of the way. Anyone doing business in the medical or recreational marijuana industry faces the constant threat of the feds (read the DEA) busting down their doors and closing up their shops. This threat is not particularly imminent as the Department of Justice and the POTUS himself have called off the dogs as of late, but make no mistake about it, the threat still remains. But a recent vote in the U.S. House of Delegates may be the first step toward a permanent resolution in the state versus federal marijuana law conflict.
A popular argument against the legalization of marijuana is that our roads will become packed with stoned drivers, and thus become more dangerous. While this argument lacks any sort of baseline data, it has appealed to those who are set on condemning medical and recreational pot use at all costs. It did not prove persuasive though in Maryland's 2014 legislative session, as medical marijuana easily passed. The revised medical program will become law in October, and could be fully functioning within 18 months. But legalization for recreational use will undoubtedly be the hot topic in our state's next few legislative sessions (until it becomes law, possibly within the next 3-5 years), and the marijuana DWI argument is sure to surface. Maryland already incorporates drug use in its DWI statute, but there are no specific provisions, which refer to marijuana testing and legal limits. We can look to other states to answer some of the questions about how the legislature, police officers, and prosecutors will handle this issue.
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.