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.
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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.
Law enforcement has reported that six Pennsylvania residents were recently arrested for various drug crimes in Ocean City. To call the out of state residents tourists may be a bit generous, because it seems from the police reports that the six young men and women may have been on the Eastern Shore for business purposes, as in selling the products they were arrested with. The arrest began as most drug arrests do, with a traffic stop for a seemingly harmless infraction. Upon approaching the car, the Ocean City Police officers allegedly observed the occupants acting nervous and suspicious. Thereupon, the cops ordered the occupants out of the vehicle and conducted a search. It is unclear whether the officers obtained permission to search, whether they lied about obtaining permission to search, or whether their observations gave them probable cause to detain and search. What is clear is that the driver and five passengers were all arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of LSD. Three of the occupants were charged with felony possession with intent to deliver, and one was charged with possession of a concealed dangerous weapon, a butterfly knife found on her person. The driver was also issued traffic citations including failure to wear a seatbelt, which undoubtedly was the initial cause of the traffic citation. Four of the occupants were released at the police station, and the other two were taken the Worcester County jail and released after posting a $2,500 bail.
The Blog has posted numerous articles on the recent steps taken by the state legislature to lower the maximum punishments for possession of marijuana, and to partially legalize the drug for medical use. We have also posted about more progressive bills introduced by Baltimore area politicians, which received a great deal of support in Annapolis despite never crossing the governor's desk. Senator Zirkin and Representative Morhaim both proposed legislation designed to decriminalize the personal use of marijuana in this year's legislative session. The movement is gathering steam, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the actual data. The fact is that arrests and criminal prosecutions for pot possession are on the rise in Maryland despite the efforts of lawmakers to curb these docket clogging cases. And perhaps the most staggering data is not the rising arrest numbers, but the fact that our state has per capita the third most marijuana possession arrests in the entire country. Closer inspection of the 2010 data reveals that Worcester County has the highest pot arrest numbers in the country for a county with a population over 30,000. This number is no doubt influenced by the obscene amount of Ocean City marijuana arrest during the summer months when the city doubles its police force by hiring truckloads of 21-year-old part time cops. But the highest per capita rate in the country? For a state that is moving toward decriminalization this is indeed shocking.
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.
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.