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.
Recently in Maryland Legislature Category
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.
Starting in January of each year the Maryland Legislature meets for about three months to debate and vote on hundreds of proposed laws. News stories chronicling the progress of these bills come out of Annapolis daily during the three-month session. But it's not until October that the work of the legislature actually begins to affect the people. Now that October is upon us all the new laws that we forgot about over the summer are in the news again, as the first of the month marks their effective date. This year there are a host of new laws that are relevant to the Blog. We'll start off with one that may seem like a big deal, but those who have been reading each of our posts won't be fooled by the headlines. As of tomorrow Maryland is officially a medical marijuana state. But as we have discussed numerous times in the past the medical marijuana program will not be functional until about 2016. Even when the program is functional it will hardly be accessible by anyone with legitimate medical need for the drug. The program will only be administered by a few select research hospitals so don't expect to see medical marijuana dispensaries popping up at your local shopping center or strip mall. The legislature will likely revisit the marijuana issue in the 2014 session though, and pot may actually be decriminalized before the medical use program even treats its first patient.
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.
The state's highest court recently ruled on a lawsuit involving dram shop laws, an issue that has been hotly debated for the last few decades. In essence, dram shop laws refer to the liability of bars and restaurants for the actions of their patrons. A state with dram shop laws provides a third party with a legal right to sue a bar or restaurant, which has continued to serve a patron that is visibly drunk, if the patron causes some sort of injury to the third party. Dram shop is simply a traditional term for any establishment that sells alcohol. These laws typically apply to DUI accidents involving serious injury or death. Currently there are 43 states with some sort of dram shop statute, but both the Maryland Legislature and the Courts have not been inclined to follow the majority on this issue, with neighboring Virginia and Delaware sharing the same view. Numerous bills have been proposed over the years, but none has ended up on the governor's desk for a signature, and the state's highest court has never upheld a civil action against a bar or tavern for an act of a patron that occurred outside the establishment.
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.
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.