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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The Blog posted numerous articles on the progress of marijuana legislation during this past legislative session. There were progressive ideas thrown around in the Senate and the House, but neither legalization nor decriminalization bills passed the General Assembly. The only bill to cross the governor's desk last spring was the complex medical marijuana law that will not be functional for a few years, if ever. The Medical Marijuana Commission, which was established by lawmakers to oversee the program, has met three times to hammer out the details of how to get legal pot to patients in need. But little progress has been made and no resolution is in sight. At this point there are simply too many hurdles to get the program off and running. Readers will recall that the medical marijuana law only authorizes academic medical facilities or hospitals to run the program, but the two largest of these facilities, Hopkins and University of Maryland, want no part of it. There is also an issue with how the hospitals that choose to participate would get their supply of pot. The law allows the hospitals to buy from the federal government, which would be great if the federal government was selling. And they're not. State licensed pot growers would also be allowed to sell to the hospitals, but at this point there are none. It's clear that a Maryland resident will not be able to acquire legal pot anytime in the near future; that is unless a more progressive law passes the General Assembly next year. One politician with aspirations to be the next governor has recently publicized her desire for this to happen.
There is still a great deal of confusion regarding our state marijuana laws, and rightly so. Maryland is one of a few states that have not taken a hardline stance one way or the other on the topic. Maybe it's because we have a governor with national political aspirations who doesn't want to show his hand this early in the game. Or maybe the onus falls on the lawmakers in Annapolis who just cannot seem to agree about the direction our laws are headed. We take calls all the time from prospective clients and those who just want to gain an understanding of the current drug statutes. Hopefully this post will paint a clearer picture of the confusing work our elected officials have done in the past few years.
If there were one word to describe the current state of Maryland marijuana policy it would be scatterbrain. Each year during the legislative sessions we see bill proposals ranging from complete legalization to decriminalization, and each year it seems nothing is done. And over the course of his term our governor has spoken frequently on the topic, but at the same time has said next to nothing. The laws reflect this sort of indecision. The way we see it, a government can take four basic stances on the personal use of marijuana; you can have complete criminalization, decriminalization, legalization for medical use, and complete legalization. With respect to our state you can throw out complete criminalization and complete legalization. It is definitely not legal to spark up a joint at a local bar or in the privacy of your own home. But it may not be criminal to spark one up in your house. Somehow Maryland has managed to fall somewhere in between having legal medical marijuana and decriminalization without having fully effective laws for either. We'll address and explain the laws for both medical use and decriminalization in two separate paragraphs as to not add to the confusion.
We recently posted an article about a notable medical personality and University of Michigan grad Dr. Sanjay Gupta shifting his stance on marijuana. Although the influential celebrity doc came out with strong public support for legalizing medical marijuana, his revised stance will have little direct affect on state and federal laws. But just last week a politician, whose stance on the topic will affect state and federal pot policy, voiced a similar change of heart. Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Colorado and Washington that the Department of Justice will not seek to override their state's new marijuana decriminalization laws. The Fed's top prosecutor and his staff also issued a memo to each of the assistant United States attorneys, which clearly spells out the revised guidelines for handling marijuana cases on the federal level. The memo describes eight points of emphasis, and not surprisingly simple possession didn't make the cut.
Around this time last year there was much talk about marijuana legislation in Maryland. The possession of less than 10 grams law was about to go into effect, and state lawmakers were preparing proposals for pot decriminalization. The talk is quieter this year though, despite the fact that the state's medical marijuana law is set to go into effect in October. The reason for the lack of buzz is likely due to the fact that the medical use program will not actually begin functioning until 2016. The law becoming effective will do little to help patients who want the drug now. But, a recent stance reversal by a prominent medical expert has the topic in the news this week. CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, has reversed his public stance to now favor the implementation of legal medical marijuana programs throughout the country. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Dr. Gupta is currently working on a documentary entitled "Weed", and has traveled the world to meet with the foremost experts on the subject.
There was no celebratory grand opening, no balloons or customers lining up on the sidewalk. But there were also no police officers waiting to make arrests as customers walked out of Washington's first operational medical marijuana dispensary with product in hand. Fifteen years after D.C. passed a referendum by an overwhelming majority to legalize pot for medical use, the program is finally off and running. Capital Care, first dispensary to participate in the program, is located just a mile from the United States Capital building where federal lawmakers spent the last decade and a half attempting to block this day from becoming a reality. The dispensary is also located steps away from the ATF headquarters, and other federal law enforcement agencies that are still empowered by federal laws, which have no mention of legalized pot for any purpose. Thus D.C. has become the latest jurisdiction to step into the common dilemma of local versus federal law with respect to marijuana legalization.