State lawmakers have officially closed the books on the 2015 legislative session, and there will be a host of new criminal and traffic bills reaching the governor's desk in the next few weeks. Some have progressed through both chambers with little fanfare, and others have attracted media attention from the first reading onward. The decriminalization of marijuana paraphernalia was a hot topic even before lawmakers convened in January, so naturally this bill received a great deal of attention throughout the legislative process. Numerous amendments were proposed and rejected, but the final bill is concise and pointed, and only modifies two existing controlled dangerous substance laws. These are section 5-601, which deals with possession, and 5-619, which deals with paraphernalia. The drug possession law is simply modified to include a section that makes smoking marijuana in public a civil offense punishable by a $500 fine, while the paraphernalia law is modified with one small paragraph stating that criminal punishments do not apply to paraphernalia involving the use or possession of marijuana. Thus, come October pot paraphernalia will no longer be a crime in Maryland.
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When the legislature decriminalized small amounts of marijuana last year the celebration drowned out many of the law's shortcomings. In last spring's rush to push decriminalization to the governor's desk, the legislature neglected to address certain collateral consequences of the new law. One of these consequences was the illogical relationship between newly decriminalized marijuana and the criminal offense of paraphernalia. This created tension and inconsistency between law enforcement and prosecutors throughout the state, and generally left defendants feeling duped and confused. A few weeks ago we posted an article about the legislature's efforts to cure this defect, and a bill modifying marijuana paraphernalia is well on its way to becoming state law. Paraphernalia may have been the most glaring and publicized omission in the decriminalization law, but it wasn't the only one.
One of the major flaws of last year's marijuana decriminalization bill was that it failed address drug paraphernalia. For the past six months possessing less than 10 grams of pot in Maryland has been punishable only by a civil citation. These citations are not available for public inspection and are not entered into an online database. On the other hand possessing marijuana paraphernalia remains a crime punishable by a $500 fine for a first offense, and up to two years in jail for any subsequent conviction. These paraphernalia citations carry the risk of a permanent conviction, are available for public inspection, and are listed on the judiciary case search. The dichotomy between these two laws is alarming, especially considering the broad definition of drug paraphernalia. Section 5-619 of the controlled dangerous substance statute basically gives police officers full discretion to determine what should be considered paraphernalia, and there are few legitimate legal defenses to challenge the this determination. Basically any object that is used in conjunction with the marijuana can be considered paraphernalia. This includes not only pipes and rolling papers, but also plastic baggies and containers.
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.
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.
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.