Maryland is widely known as having some of the strictest gun laws in the entire country. Few states have provisions that even come close to the highly controversial law, which requires citizens to prove a good and substantial reason to possess a carry permit. Maryland also requires mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, regardless of whether the seller is a licensed dealer or a private party. There is also a mandatory seven-day waiting period in order to buy a gun. And now after the close of this years legislative session in Annapolis, the strict are bound get stricter after The General Assembly passed new firearms regulations. The bill, which has generated national attention, is awaiting Governor O'Malley's signature before it becomes law. All prior indications from the Governor's office have signaled that signing on the dotted line is a foregone conclusion. The new law will have a sweeping impact on all aspects of firearms regulation including purchasing, possessing, and selling.
Recently in Maryland Legislature 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.
A little over a year ago, Federal District Court Judge Benson Everett Legg ruled that the "good and substantial" provision of the Maryland concealed carry gun law was unconstitutional. This provision required citizens to prove to the state Handgun Permit Unit that they had a good and substantial reason before being granted a concealed carry permit. When a Baltimore County man was denied one such permit, he filed suit in federal court, and the Second Amendment Foundation, which advocates for the preservation of the right to carry, joined in the lawsuit. Despite the Attorney General's best efforts, Judge Legg concluded that the law was too broad to satisfy the state's compelling interest to protect its citizens and prevent crime. According to the Judge the good and substantial provision did not safeguard the public from every handgun related hazard, and therefore did not do enough to justify a significant limitation on the constitutional right to bear arms. But just last week, a three-judge panel sitting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit unanimously disagreed with Judge Legg, and reversed his decision.
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.
Maryland lawmakers are set to begin the 2013 legislative session next week in Annapolis, and gun control is one topic on the minds of many representatives. State legislatures from all over the country will undoubtedly take a deep look into their respective gun laws following the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, and Maryland is no exception. At least one representative, a democrat from Baltimore County, has already publically proposed a bill that would require active duty police officers to be deployed full time in all state public schools. There are currently school resources officers in many middle and high schools and a few elementary schools, but deploying these officers in public schools is not mandatory. School resource officers are sworn policemen and women that have arrest powers, and carry standard issue police firearms. The bill was submitted as emergency legislation, which means that if it passes it could go into effect as soon as February. It is obviously too early to tell if the bill will receive any opposition, but it seems as if the financial burden on local police jurisdictions would be the only obstacle to the bill's passage.
If the bill is passed in the next few weeks, it could cost Maryland's city and county police departments between 50 and 70 million dollars per year. This money would likely come from gambling revenue that is already earmarked for the state's schools. It seems logical that this bill will pass easily and the required funds will be made available. Many had been questioning why this type of law was not implicated pre Newtown, and now after the latest school tragedy the legislature is unlikely to go through the next 3 months without putting a gun control law on the books. Requiring police in every public school is not the only bill that will be proposed in the upcoming session. Many representatives have also come out in support of a state ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. This bill may meet slightly more opposition than the school officer bill due to the constitutional issues that it may present. There may also be a bill introduced in Annapolis that attempts to keep all guns away from anyone with a dangerous mental illness, but this bill may have the same constitutional issues in addition to being difficult to implement.
The war on prescription drug abuse has been effective in decreasing the availability of commonly abused pills such as oxycodone and other narcotics. But as an unintended consequence, heroin use in Maryland has actually been on the rise. More people are using heroin, and state officials are reporting a significant jump in the number of deaths attributed to heroin overdoses in 2012. In fact, in the first half of 2012 heroin related overdoses increased 41 percent, with 205 deaths reported from January to July of this year compared to 145 in 2011 over the same time frame. There could be a wide variety of reasons for the jump in overdoses, which according to state officials signals a definite jump in use of the drug, but the leading factor is likely a recent crackdown on pill mills.
Pill mills have become a booming business over the past decade in dozens of states across the country. Most of the states affected lack actual legislation or strict medical board rules to control the amount of narcotics that are prescribed and purchased. Although there are thousands of legitimate pain clinics across the country with well trained and respected physicians, there are also some clinics who's sole purpose is to rake in huge amounts of money with absolutely no motivation to care for their patients. These clinics are often owned by businessmen with no medical training, and sometimes employ doctors by the month. These doctors are been paid as much as $100,000 per month to simply write prescriptions all day, many times after speaking with their patients for less than 5 minutes. The prescriptions allow the patients to buy powerful narcotic painkillers such as oxycodone by the hundreds. Many of the patients are addicts themselves, and others simply use the pain clinics to obtain a cheap supply of the drugs to sell for a profit. It is not unreasonable for one person to walk out of a pill mill with a prescription for 300 oxycodone pills that sell for ten times more on the street than what it costs to buy in the pharmacy.
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.
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.
Enforcing Maryland marijuana laws is still a top priority for law enforcement agencies throughout the state, but public sentiment about the drug may be changing the way police look at marijuana cases. Marijuana arrests still account for the majority of all drug arrests throughout Maryland, and in most jurisdictions the ratio of marijuana arrests to other drug arrests is not even close. For example, in Montgomery County 67 percent of all drug possession arrests were for marijuana possession in 2011, and a staggering 74 percent of all drug possession arrests were for marijuana in 2010. These numbers would be even higher if all drug cases processed by Montgomery County Police were included, because a large number of marijuana possession defendants are not arrested, but rather are issued citations for the crime. In contrast, suspects caught by police with other drugs such as cocaine or heroin are almost always arrested at the crime scene. So far in 2012 the percentage of marijuana arrests to all drug arrests has fallen slightly to 63 percent. The question being asked now is whether this percentage will continue to drop as Maryland citizens and Maryland lawmakers become more tolerant of marijuana use.
The Maryland legislature sent a major message to the public when it lowered the maximum penalty for possession of marijuana from one hear in jail to 90 days in jail. The Baltimore Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog has thoroughly documented the softening of marijuana punishments, which will take effect in October, but one topic that has not been discussed is how law enforcement will respond to the legislature's message. It appears for now that Montgomery County law enforcement will continue to enforce Maryland's marijuana laws, but Montgomery police may be shifting their attention and focus to marijuana dealers and suppliers rather than users. The head of the county's drug enforcement section has gone on record stating that Marijuana will still be a priority due to the drug's prevalence and availability, but county cops are being told to arrest the marijuana dealers, rather than to specifically target the drug's users. This is clearly a shift in the traditional way we look at law enforcement. Police officers have always targeted certain crimes more than others, but when a top cop goes on record stating that certain laws will be enforced with more vigor than others, change is clearly in the air. There also may be a shift in the way marijuana possession cases are prosecuted by the state's attorney.
In the past few years the Maryland legislature has weakened its stance on the prosecution of marijuana possession cases. This trend began with the passing of laws that allow defendants charged with possession of marijuana to assert the legal defense of medical necessity. The Maryland legislature also went on to pass a law that will decrease the maximum jail sentence that a defendant charged with a first offense of possession of marijuana can receive. Come October, a first offense for marijuana possession will carry a 60 day maximum jail sentence rather than the scarcely used 1 year maximum jail sentence. Surprisingly though, the Maryland legislature has remained silent on the issue of synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana is not a new substance, as it has been around for almost 10 years, but it has become increasingly popular over the last few years. More gas stations, convenience stores, and liquor stores are beginning to stock their shelves with the substance often referred to as spice or K2. And the synthetic marijuana has been flying off these shelves lately as a legal, easy to obtain alternative to marijuana. The substance is also desirable because although it can be tested for, it does not produce a positive drug test for marijuana or cannabis. With the increase in synthetic marijuana's popularity comes increased attention by lawmakers and law enforcement, but will lawmakers actually take action to regulate the fake marijuana?