Large scale drug smuggling operations are usually prosecuted in federal court, but when the feds decline to take over an investigation it gives the local police some time in the spotlight. The Harford County Sheriff has announced the details of a two year long drug trafficking investigation, that spanned from California to Maryland. The investigation began back in 2010, and police began making arrests in October of 2012. As many as 15 people have been arrested and charged with various crimes under the Maryland controlled dangerous substance laws. Some of the cases have already been resolved by way of guilty pleas, and others remain open with pending trial dates. Police first began their investigation after a 2010 tip from a citizen revealed that an Aberdeen man had been selling large amounts of marijuana throughout Harford County. Over one year later, cops received another tip that linked an Abingdon man with the alleged Aberdeen dealer. This second tip seemed to jumpstart county police into action, as cops began a lengthy undercover operation designed at building a case against all of those involved.
Recently in Marijuana Category
The Blog has chronicled the progress of multiple proposed marijuana laws in the 2013 Maryland legislative session. With less than a week left for lawmakers to debate and ultimately cast their votes, the status of all but one of these proposed laws is up in the air. The bill establishing a state run medical marijuana program implemented with the cooperation of academic hospitals has passed in the House, but not in the Senate. This bill has already garnered support from Governor O'Malley. The State Senate has passed a different bill, which would decriminalize possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, but the House has not approved this bill. Finally, neither the House nor Senate has approved another bill that would decriminalize, tax, and regulate all reasonable quantities of the drug. This bill received a hearing in the House but has not yet been put to a vote.
The one proposed law that has passed both the House and the Senate is a medical marijuana bill that has been long overdue. In 2011 Maryland passed a law that allows patients to use marijuana and avoid criminal prosecution, provided these patients prove a legitimate medical necessity to a Judge. The shortcomings of this law have been well documented on the Blog. A patient can only use the affirmative defense after the case has been brought to court, meaning the legitimate medical use of marijuana can still get you arrested. Another major shortcoming is that there is no protection provided to caregivers, such as parents or other family members of children that use medical marijuana. This is one step away from changing, as the General Assembly has passed a bill that would provide the same legal protection to caregivers as it provides to patients themselves. Caregivers would now be able to use the affirmative defense to avoid criminal prosecution for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. The caregivers must be Maryland residents who are over the age of 21 and must be an immediate family member of the patient. It is also a requirement that the caregiver be designated as such in writing before the time that he or she is arrested. It is not yet clear how this writing would officially be recorded. The caregiver must have no criminal convictions, and can only be a designated caregiver for one patient.
Supporters in the fight to bring legal medical marijuana to Maryland received some uplifting news a few days ago from the governor's office. While O'Malley did not actually come out and personally support legal use of the drug, he did give the go ahead for his health secretary to back the bill. During a hearing in Annapolis last Friday, secretary Sharfstein told lawmakers that the governor's administration would now support medical marijuana legislation. The governor's office did not address pending legislation for decriminalization and legalization of recreational marijuana use, but the health secretary's statements did signal a reversal from the administration's position on medical use this time last year.
In 2012 the medical use bills were defeated in the General Assembly due to concerns about state employees facing possible federal prosecution for developing and implementing a plan to dispense a drug that was, and is still is illegal under federal law. The actual likelihood of state employees being prosecuted by the feds was slim to none, and still remains a far-fetched scenario. Nonetheless, the governor's office used this as an excuse to make sure the bill died, while at the same time assuring that medical use activists would be only the slightest bit offended. In essence this clever political play bought the governor an additional year to weigh the effects of serving as the executive of a state with legalized pot against his national political aspirations. After witnessing the groundbreaking popular votes in Colorado and Washington State, along with the continuing trend toward universal support of medical marijuana, it was an easy reversal for the governor.
Those who have read most of our posts understand the blog's position on the state marijuana laws. The medical use laws in Maryland do little to protect those who have an actual need for the drug because the users are not protected from being arrested or cited. On top of this, the statutory affirmative defense is always at the mercy of the presiding judge's discretion, and there are simply too few judges that actually understand the medical benefits of marijuana. Call it ignorance or a generational gap, but whatever the reason the affirmative defense is rarely granted and offers little practical protection.
Decriminalization for simple possession would be a step in the right direction, but would only be a temporary fix that would fail to establish a firm stance on the drug's place in society. Complete legalization for personal use, along with a structure for taxing and regulating the sale and use of marijuana would raise revenue for the state. At the same time, legalization would ease the burden on law enforcement and the judicial system. But it appears that legalization in Maryland is a long shot, and the latest House proposed bill is unlikely to make it out of committee. The state senate has yet to even propose a legalization bill. So what is the holdup? Why won't any of these bills come across the governor's desk, and if they do, why won't he sign them? The balance of this post will outline the main arguments that seem to be standing in the way of progressive pot legislation.
Marijuana legalization debates continue to ramp up on the floor of the state legislature, and the latest bill to be introduced is by far the most progressive to date. We previously posted an article about the introduction of Maryland Senate Bill 297, which dealt with the decriminalization of the popular drug. The most recent bill though takes Senator Zirkin's proposal one step further, and calls for outright legalization of marijuana for recreational use. The new bill is nearly identical to the laws that were recently passed in Colorado and Washington. If passed into law, it would allow citizens over the age of 21 to possess one ounce or less of marijuana, and additionally to grow up to three plants in their homes. The current state law makes it illegal for anyone to possess even a residue amount of the plant, and violators face up to 90 days in jail for having 10 grams or less, and up to a year for possessing more than 10 grams.
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.
As we approach the midway point in this year's legislative session in Annapolis, it should come as no surprise that marijuana is trending heavily on the floor. Representative Glenn of Baltimore planned to introduce the Maryland Medical Marijuana Act to the House Judiciary Committee. This is the same bill that lost steam during the legislative gauntlet last winter. The bill would allow the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to establish centers for marijuana distribution for patients with a medical necessity for the drug, provided they are under the continuous care of a doctor. Ms. Glenn is quoted as saying that "people are suffering everyday in the state of Maryland, and they are being subjected to going out on the streets for the relief we should be providing." In addition to suffering unnecessary pain and anguish, medical marijuana users also face arrest and prosecution from State's Attorneys and Judges who naively believe marijuana is a dangerous drug with no legitimate benefits. This type of archaic thinking is especially present in the more rural areas of the state, and in stricter jurisdictions such as Harford County and Worchester County.
This year's legislative session is well under way in Annapolis, and all signs point to the conclusion that legalized pot is still a pipedream in Maryland. The state made national and even global headlines in November for officially sanctioning same sex marriage and has been called one of the most liberal in the country. But when it comes to drug enforcement, and marijuana in particular, Maryland is a far cry from liberal. In fact, our great state is stricter than most when it comes to drug crimes and possible sentences. Possession of over ten grams of the drug still carries a one year jail sentence, and cops around the state are arresting large numbers of simple possession defendants. There are multiple reasons for the grim outlook on possible recreational and medical marijuana legalization, but the biggest reason comes from the top of the political food chain. Governor O'Malley has repeatedly threatened to veto any legalization bill that crosses his desk, and has shown no signs of backing down from this stance.
Other concerns stem from concern amongst legislators that the federal government would step in and begin prosecuting any legal state marijuana operations. The drug is still years away from federal legalization and the Justice Department has shown no signs of change on the issue either. But according to supporters for legalization, concerns over the federal government meddling in the state's medical marijuana policy is unfounded and lacks precedent. There are very few cases around the country where the federal government has made an effort to corral medical use operations, and there is no evidence that the federal government is going to interfere with Colorado and Washington's recreational use laws. Lately, it seems the federal government excuse is becoming more popular with politicians across the country that are reluctant to take a stance on legalization.
Federal law enforcement recently announced that a major drug ring in suburban Maryland has been busted up, and numerous arrests have been made. In total, 18 people were arrested in the bust, and as many as 15 have already been charged with conspiracy to distribute more than two thousand pounds of marijuana and various other drugs. The federal grand jury indictment included information, which led federal officers to believe that the Anne Arundel County drug ring distributed cocaine, prescription pills, steroids, as well as large amounts of pot. As many as 250 federal agents participated in multiple raids that reportedly resulted in the seizure of 30 cars, 60 pounds of marijuana, upwards of 300 thousand dollars cash, and multiple guns. The seizures are not even close to complete as the U.S. Justice Department is seeking the court's approval to confiscate over 10 million dollars in cash, multiple real estate properties, bank accounts, cars, and business assets.
The yearlong investigation that led to the recent bust began rather fortuitously for law enforcement. Last year around this time, a Glen Burnie man was involved in a serious car accident, and upon arriving on the scene police found over a pound of marijuana and a money counting machine. Cops also found papers detailing the operation, which ultimately spear headed the investigation. Over the next 12 months federal authorities learned about a highly complex interstate organization that was complete with stash houses to store the drugs, and shell corporations to launder the profits. Cops also learned that the drugs were shipped, driven, and even flown to Baltimore from California and New Jersey. Authorities reported that the alleged traffickers were bold enough to fly the drugs into BWI airport during the operation.
The Maryland Legislature is scheduled to begin its 2013 legislative session next month, and marijuana is one issue that is sure to be hotly debated. Medical marijuana supporters and personal use advocates alike hope that this year's session makes more progress in the fight for decriminalization. Toward the end of last year's legislative session, the head of the state's department of health went on record saying that he would not support decriminalization as long as federal law continued to define pot as an illegal controlled substance. The department head cited concerns that his state employees could be subject to federal prosecution under the controlled substances act and there would be nothing the state could do to protect them. The head of any state agency has a duty to protect his or her employees, but the broader issue is also that state lawmakers want to protect their constituents as well. It would certainly not look good for Annapolis if Maryland citizens were being prosecuted federally for following a law that their own delegates supported and eventually passed. But supporters of marijuana decriminalization have hope that this year will be different based on two influential votes on this past Election Day.
As readers of this blog and those who have been following national drug laws are aware, Colorado and Washington State voted to decriminalize personal marijuana use. Both states, and close to 20 others including Washington D.C. already had medical marijuana laws on the books, but this past election took the movement to new heights. Local advocates back here in Maryland are now optimistic that the legislature will consider the Colorado and Washington laws in crafting their own legislation. Obviously we cannot expect that Annapolis will jump on board with personal use decriminalization, but medical marijuana laws in this year's session are a distinct possibility. There is no official word from the Governor's office to date that would indicate which way O'Malley is leaning, and his future political aspirations could play into his decision to support a medical use law. A politician with greater aspirations is likely to be more conservative in his or her final years. For now though, lobbyists, grass roots advocates, and users have some reason for optimism.
Various states have recently been modifying and in some cases eradicating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and manufacturing. As a result law enforcement has seen an uptick in shipping the drug from a state where it is legal to a state that has yet to join the legalization party. Despite recent modifications in the controlled dangerous substance laws, marijuana continues to be illegal under state law, and thus local and federal law enforcement have focused a great deal of attention on intercepting packaged drugs headed toward Maryland. Recently a large number of federal search warrants were unsealed in Baltimore, allowing the public to take a look inside the process and procedure of apprehending suspects that take delivery of packaged drugs.
Mailing drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and ecstasy from state to state is not a new method of drug distribution. Drug traffickers and even personal users have been utilizing the mail for decades as a seemingly safer alternative to transporting drugs via car or plane. But now that some states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and even for non-medical personal use, shipping pot by mail has taken off. The mail trend likely gained popularity when California legalized marijuana cultivation for medical use over ten years ago. This immediately caused the price of pot to drop 3 or 4 times below its traditional street value, and the current street value in many East Coast states such as Maryland. Nowadays you can purchase a pound of high quality pot for as little as $1,000 in California, whereas throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast a pound still goes for over $3,000. Personal users and dealers alike can do the simple math and figure out the benefits of getting their supply from the West Coast. And with ramped up airport security as well as K9 patrols along the interstate highways, not to mention the price of gas, it simply pays for some people to take the risk of mailing their stash.
More campaign and lobbyist money was spent in 2012 than in any other election year in American history. Whether it was the estimated 3 billion dollars spent on the presidential race, or the 90 million dollars spend on expanding Maryland's gambling laws, this Election Day will not soon be forgotten. And for those who have been fighting the decades long battle to legalize marijuana, this Election Day may go down in history as the vote that started it all. Two states, Colorado and Washington have passed laws that will effectively legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The Colorado law makes it legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of pot, and authorizes homeowners to have up to 6 plants for the purposes of cultivating the drug. The Washington law also authorizes carrying up to an ounce, but requires that users buy their stash from state licensed distributors rather than growing it at home. Both states make still maintain that it is illegal to drive while under the influence of the drug, with Washington establishing a blood THC limit. Smoking marijuana in public will still be illegal and violators are subject to citation and fines similar to a public consumption of alcohol violation. Supporters of the propositions, which will turn into law within the next few months, were out in force celebrating the victory. Meanwhile, the opposition was left questioning the law's supposed benefits as well as the complications that will accompany implication of the state laws.
A variety of new Maryland laws are set to go into effect on Monday, October 1st. Many of these new Maryland laws are part to the criminal justice system, most notably the Maryland marijuana possession law. After years of lobbying by marijuana legalization groups, the Maryland state legislature finally voted to change the state's harsh marijuana possession laws. Starting on Monday, the maximum penalty for simple possession of marijuana will be lowered from 1 year in jail to 90 days in jail, and the maximum fine will be lowered from $1,000 to $500. Simple possession of marijuana is possession of less than 10 grams of the controlled substance. Pressure from pro marijuana lobbyist groups was not the only reason that the legislature and governor agreed with the new marijuana penalties. The legislature was also swayed by proponents of a more streamlined judicial system.
Possession of marijuana cases have been clogging the district court dockets in Maryland for years, especially in densely populated jurisdictions such as Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Prince George's County. But in the past, many of these simple marijuana possession cases would also end up clogging the circuit court dockets as well. By lowering the maximum penalty for possession of marijuana to 90 days, a defendant is no longer allowed to demand a trial by jury in the circuit court, and starting October 1st possession of marijuana cases will for the most part begin and end in district court. Under the Maryland rules of criminal procedure a defendant may only demand a jury trial if he or she is facing more than 90 days incarceration. The new marijuana possession laws may seem like a victory for marijuana legalization supporters, but losing the right to a jury trial could prove to be a significant detriment to a possession of marijuana defendant who decides to fight his or her charges. Demanding a jury trial in a possession of marijuana case was not only a means to guarantee due process, but also a significant bargaining chip that a defense lawyer could use to earn a better negotiated offer from the state prosecuting lawyer.
The ongoing battle marijuana to legalize marijuana in America and in Maryland took another hit recently as Federal prosecutors have increased efforts to crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries. This latest crackdown effort came at the hands of Federal lawyers and court papers rather than with the search warrants and guns of the DEA and FBI. No arrests were made in any of the latest anti marijuana push, but a strong message has been sent across the country that the Feds are not ready to reverse their position on marijuana legalization.
On August 21 Federal prosecutors filed 3 lawsuits in Orange County Florida against property owners who rent their real estate to medical marijuana dispensaries. The property owners were told that they could risk forfeiture of their real estate if they continue to rent space to the marijuana dispensaries. Federal prosecuting lawyers also sent upwards of 60 letters to medical marijuana clinics in Orange County threatening criminal charges if the marijuana clinics continue to sell the drug. Orange County is not the only area being targeted by the Federal efforts to crackdown on medical marijuana as the Feds have been going after marijuana dispensaries throughout the Central District of California.
Annapolis police have arrested a 19 year old Maryland man in one of the largest drug busts in Anne Arundel County this year. Police received tips from community sources, as well as their own investigations in order to secure a search warrant that ultimately led to the seizure of nearly $30,000 worth of heroin, stacks of cash, and marijuana. Police also seized two handguns from the Maryland man's house. Closer examination of the guns back at the Annapolis police department revealed that the firearms, a 9mm Beretta and a Smith and Wesson, were in fact stolen. Police did not reveal how much marijuana was seized from the Maryland residence, but closer inspection of the heroin revealed 140 grams of high grade heroin packaged for sale. Annapolis police are still investigating possible sources of the heroin. At the current time, police have not arrested a supplier, but more arrests stemming from this bust could be imminent. The Maryland man was arrested on 5 separate CDS drug counts including narcotics possession, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Bail was set at $40,000, which was posted soon after the arrest.
In the last few years, there has been a decline in the overall crime levels in Maryland's capital city of Annapolis, especially in the rate of violent crimes such as assault and robbery. But Annapolis cops and other police forces in Maryland such as the Baltimore police department are still seeing evidence that drug use and drug dealing is not going through the same decline. Police use their own arrest data, as well as available date from external sources such as hospital admissions for drug overdoses, to conclude as the Annapolis police department's spokesman did after this drug bust was made public "that the war on drugs is far from over".