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marijuana-1281540_1280-300x225A recent Maryland Court of Appeals order likely prevented months of further delays to the medical marijuana program, and now registered patients may have access to cannabis by the end of the summer. The high court order blocked a Baltimore City judge from conducting a hearing about whether to stop the state medical cannabis commission from issuing more final grow licenses. Only one of the fifteen approved growers currently has a final license that allows the legal commencement of the cultivation process. The other fourteen were not able to secure a final license under the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge’s temporary restraining order, which was requested by minority owned grow companies that were not one of the fifteen to receive preliminary licenses to operate. The restraining order was supposed to expire on the date of the hearing, but now there will be no hearing and the order has expired.

The Court of Appeals did not release a full opinion on the matter, but rather stayed the restraining order portion of the lawsuit that is challenging whether the licensing process took race into account as required by law. The disgruntled growers requested the restraining order after arguing they would suffer greater harm should the medical marijuana program be allowed to proceed before their lawsuit is resolved. The Baltimore judge had barred the fourteen growers awaiting final licenses from participating in the restraining order hearing, which raised issues of fairness and standing, and may have prompted the Court of Appeals to issue the emergency order. Another issue the high court likely considered was the amount of money the licensed growers invested and stood to lose if the growing process was halted indefinitely. Lawyers argued that the companies who received preliminary licenses invested over $150 million in final preparation to begin growing and distributing.

Over the last four years most of the news headlines pertaining to medical marijuana here in Maryland have focused on incompetence, delays and corruption. News of the recent order by the Court of Appeals appears to buck this trend, and we could finally be approaching the home stretch where the first dose of medical cannabis reaches a patient in need. Estimates of the program officially becoming active in late summer are cautiously optimistic, but at this point there does not appear to be any impending issues that could threaten this timeline. There is always the risk that the federal government could somehow get involved, though this appears unlikely. The state’s highest court has spoken rather loudly that it believes medical marijuana should proceed without further delay. Whether the program could abruptly be halted sometime again in the future is another question, and one that will constantly be hanging over the heads of the licensed growers, distributors and patients. It has been argued that the licensing process was unconstitutional at its core, and this issue will be resolved in court or by way of negotiated settlement. A settlement however would likely have to involve the legislature granting additional license to the aggrieved parties, which is a long shot and would have legal issues of its own. For now though the medical cannabis program steams ahead and the Blog will continue to follow any more potential hiccups.

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pills_money-300x199The Maryland State Police recently announced the indictments of 18 defendants in a large drug conspiracy that spanned numerous counties and stretched into Delaware. The investigation began last fall state when police investigators received information that a male suspect was involved in a drug trafficking ring operating out of Queen Anne’s County. Narcotics detectives had reason to believe that this particular suspect, who lived in Kent County, assisted in the importation and distribution of large amounts of opioids including oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, methadone and heroin throughout the state. Further investigation also revealed this suspect’s alleged involvement with another Kent County man in cocaine trafficking. Both male suspects were self employed, which further peaked the interests of law enforcement officers about the possibility of ongoing money laundering. As the investigation progressed, police officers from numerous jurisdictions including Talbot County and Anne Arundel County coordinated their efforts to develop more suspects in the case. Delaware State Police, Natural Resources Police, and local departments from Chestertown and Centreville also assisted, and the culmination of this investigation occurred this past week with the announcement of 18 arrests from indictments in the Circuit Court for Queen Anne’s County.

The two original suspects now face over 50 charges apiece, including multiple counts for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and CDS. According to the State Police report these two defendants allegedly conspired to import over 3.5 pounds of cocaine and 5000 pills, including 4000 of oxycodone and 50 pills each of morphine and fentanyl in just one 6-week period. The street value of these drugs is estimated at $130,000. Oddly, neither defendant faces any felony charges on these indictments; Maryland law classifies all conspiracy crimes as common law misdemeanors. But despite being misdemeanors, many of these counts carry 20-year maximum penalties, which state prosecutors will undoubtedly use as leverage to during plea negotiations. The extraordinarily high bails, one being $250,000 and the other being $350,000 also reflect the severity of these charges. There does not appear to be any physical evidence directly attributed to the two main defendants at this time (hence the conspiracy charges), though law enforcement did execute numerous search and seizure warrants and recovered a great deal of contraband. All told, there were 14 firearms, hundreds of pills, crack cocaine, marijuana and almost $100,000 dollars in U.S. currency recovered. Police also seized 15 vehicles that may be kept and then auctioned under state forfeiture laws.

The Blog will continue to follow this case as it progresses through the circuit court. It will be interesting to see whether there are any suppression issues raised in pre-trial proceedings, as it is unclear how police received all of their information. In any large-scale criminal investigation police often receive much of their intelligence from confidential informants, though CI’s alone will not suffice if the kingpins are careful. Prior coordinated law enforcement operations on the Eastern Shore have benefitted from the use of wiretap warrants, which could have sealed the fate of the defendants in this case.

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drugs-22237_640-300x198Lawmakers have made numerous attempts to curb the heroin epidemic in Maryland, and the governor has gone so far as to pronounce a state of emergency as overdose numbers continue to spike. Some Annapolis legislators considered passing a law that would allow the state to prosecute drug dealers under an enhanced 30-year jail penalty if their product caused a death, and we may see similar bills hit the state house floor in the future. State law enforcement is also joining in the fight, as Baltimore murder police are now beginning to investigate drug overdoses for potential links to dealers. The city police commissioner recently announced that five detectives working out of the homicide department will respond to both fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Baltimore is not the first jurisdiction to seek criminal evidence at overdose scenes, as Harford County narcotics detectives have already been showing up with first responder medics for the last two years. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office though was forced to scale this initiative back, as the sheer amount of overdoses proved too tough to manage.

State’s Attorney’s Offices around Maryland have also tried to do their part in furthering the agenda to combat the overdose epidemic. We previously posted about a defendant in Worcester County that was convicted and sentenced under state manslaughter law for selling heroin that ultimately resulted in a deadly overdose. Now another state prosecutor’s office has reported a manslaughter conviction in a CDS narcotics distribution case, and the defendant received the maximum penalty provided by the law. A Waldorf woman was just sentenced to 10 years in state prison in the Circuit Court for Charles County for selling fentanyl to man who later died of a drug overdose. The woman allegedly told the deceased buyer that her product was heroin when she knew that it was actually fentanyl, a far more powerful narcotic. This was reportedly the first time a defendant was convicted for manslaughter for selling drugs involved in an overdose in Charles County. The 34 year-old woman was also recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for another unrelated drug distribution charge, and was convicted and sentenced to probation on a third controlled dangerous substance case.

Law enforcement and state prosecutors may continue to seek enhanced penalties for drug dealers whose buyers overdose, but the deterrent effect of these measures is tough gauge. Harford County made a legitimate effort to seek out and prosecute dealers by investigating overdoses, but after two years their fatal and non-fatal overdose numbers remain largely unchanged. Efforts in Baltimore City may suffer the same fate, as the heroin epidemic is not under control in Maryland or anywhere else in America for that matter. In response to the public outcry government officials such as lawmakers, police chiefs and state’s attorneys tend to take the easy way out by announcing new initiatives to target suppliers. But a press release or two about a dealer serving extra time in prison gives these officials a false sense of accomplishment. The overdose numbers are not decreasing, and rather than targeting the endless supply of small time dealers officials should focus more on education, treatment and perhaps safe zones for users. While legalization and strict regulation of heroin would eliminate the type of street overdoses in the Worcester and Charles County cases, this is not a realistic solution at this point in time. The fact that legalization does not even warrant serious discussion is unfortunate, but there will come a time when government officials will have no choice but to consider it.

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potgrow1-300x225Medical marijuana growers throughout Maryland are putting the finishing touches on their multi million-dollar greenhouses, and after 4 years of waiting some are prepared to start planting or processing powerful strands of pot within a matter of weeks. But enthusiasm within the walls of the 23 state licensed grow and processing facilities is somewhat tempered as numerous impediments to commencing operations remain. The latest impediment comes in the form of an emergency motion filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, which requests a judge to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the state cannabis commission from issuing final grow licenses. One of the companies that did not receive a preliminary grow license filed the motion on the grounds that the commission ignored a portion of the law that requires actively seeking racial and ethnic diversity throughout the licensing process. Lawyers learned of this omission during ongoing depositions as part of the discovery process of pending litigation against the state. This request for a temporary restraining order comes on the heels of the governor issuing an executive order requesting a study whether minority companies face disadvantages in the medical marijuana industry. In addition, it still remains a possibility that lawmakers may be recalled to Annapolis for a special legislative session to address racial diversity concerns with respect to the 15 awarded grow licenses.

As if the restraining order motion and the governor’s inquiry into the fairness of the process weren’t enough, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is now under fire for possibly circumventing public contract bidding regulations. State officials with the Office of Legislative Audits have been critical of how the commission awarded the contract to evaluate grower and distributor licenses to an economic studies group at Towson University. It turns out that Towson charged 60 percent more per application that had originally been budgeted for, and the price to review the 512 applications came to a whopping $2.6 million. Auditors clearly believe that the commission spent too much of the state’s money, and it probably did. However at the time the commission was severely inexperienced and underfunded, and ill equipped to handle hundreds more applications than expected. There was understandably tons of pressure to get the straggling medical marijuana program off the ground, and the commission likely made a decision to have the applications reviewed by a competent institution as quickly as possible.

Towson has yet to receive payment on the $2.6 million bill but they are expecting the state to pick up the entire tab. The bottom line is that the university did the work and whatever excess costs were incurred should really be attributed to lawmakers. The process to evaluate and rank the applications was extremely complicated, and placing an arbitrary limit of 15 licenses was short sighted and illogical. In addition, the commission was not afforded adequate resources to do its job, as commissioners were volunteers from the state who did not receive specialized training. Taxpayers would have been better served by a commission made up of a paid, full-time staff with experience implementing one of the many medical marijuana programs in the country.

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car-1579259_1280-300x201The Maryland State Police Trooper who drove up to a gathering of 50 people in the middle of a Baltimore County road last Sunday afternoon must have been caught off guard at first. However the trooper’s confusion likely wore off within seconds after realizing the crowd was actually observing the start of an illegal street race. The crowd quickly dispersed upon noticing the police presence and one the two cars involved in the aborted race fled the scene and was never caught. The other car though was not able to elude the officer, and its driver, a 26-year old man from Harford County, was arrested and charged with numerous offenses.

While street racing is illegal in Maryland it is not a jailable offense unless it results in serious bodily injury to another person. Rather racing, or even participating in the race as a timekeeper or flagman, is a payable traffic citation that carries a $290 fine and the possibility of 5 points upon conviction. The troopers that encountered the young man who was allegedly about to race his Corvette down Kelso drive could not make an arrest based on the state traffic laws.  Instead they slapped disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace charges on him and took him away in cuffs. Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace are basically the same crimes under state law, and carry a maximum jail sentence of 60 days. The problem with these crimes is how subjective they are, and that they can include almost any type of behavior. Police officers have far too much discretion and as a result many defendants (and perhaps this defendant) are wrongfully charged.

Officers could have written traffic and criminal citations on scene and released the man, but obviously did not feel this was appropriate. He was booked and later released on his own recognizance, and in addition to being summoned for court now has deal with the embarrassment of seeing his booking photo appear on all the news websites. Although the alleged crime took place just steps away from the Baltimore County District Court in Essex, it appears that the defendant will answer for his charges in Towson sometime this summer.  It is also worth noting that there is a state police station on that same block, and the rest of the street is mostly commercial and industrial properties that are closed on weekends.

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adult-1866883_1280-300x225A Maryland man with an active felony warrant was recently arrested in Delaware after he parked next to a police officer with an open container of alcohol in his car. Just after 1 p.m. on an otherwise normal Friday afternoon a Rehoboth Beach police officer was writing a parking ticket when he observed the 29-year old man from Laurel pull up next to him. The officer would have paid little attention to the man, but for the two containers of alcohol that were immediately visible inside the car. After spotting the booze the Delaware cop had no choice but to investigate further, and when he did, he noticed the odor of an alcoholic beverage and other signs of impairment. While roadside sobriety exercises proved too difficult to administer due to a language barrier, the officer did feel he had enough evidence to arrest the man. A blood alcohol test confirmed the officer’s suspicions and the man was booked for drunk driving.

Upon confirming the man’s identity, Rehoboth PD then realized their drunken defendant had an outstanding felony warrant out of Wicomico County. The warrant was issued by the District Court in Salisbury back in January of 2016 and included one charge of felony third degree burglary. Other charges on the warrant included multiple counts of assault, malicious destruction of property and misdemeanor burglary in the fourth degree. The Laurel man also had a warrant for failing to appear in court for a jailable traffic citation resulting from driving without a valid license. Before he can answer for the charges in Maryland the defendant must first be transferred to the Wicomico County detention center. As of now he’s being held in the Sussex Correctional Institution in Delaware pending extradition.

This case is hardly the crime story of the year, but it is of interest to the Blog as we head into the summer months where thousands will flock to the beaches of Maryland and Delaware. In this particular case the defendant made it easy on the cop, but police officers will be focused on open container violations as the tourist season ramps up. This is especially true in Ocean City, where possession of an open container of alcohol actually carries the possibility of jail time. The Ocean City police force increases in size by dozens of officers during the summer months, and these new cops are often hungry to make their mark. Open container, minor in possession of alcohol, fake ID and disorderly conduct cases are some of the most common crimes during in June, July and August. Visiting the coast during the summer months can be a great time, but unfortunately hundreds of summer beachgoers are forced to come back to a Worcester County courtroom in the Fall to answer for a criminal citation or summons. Walking down coastal highway with a beer or refreshing cocktail may seem harmless but it’s illegal and not something that is overlooked by police officers. The OC PD will write hundreds of alcohol and marijuana citations this summer so be aware and make sure it isn’t your name on one of them.

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police-224426__180State regulators recently did away with an archaic restriction that cost hundreds of otherwise qualified applicants the opportunity to become Maryland law enforcement officers. In a landslide 16 to 1 vote the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission eliminated the unreasonable restriction, which previously prevented anyone who had smoked pot more than 20 times in their life, or more than 5 times since turning 21, from becoming a sworn police officer. The plea to ease the 40-year old restriction originally came from the Baltimore Police commissioner, who had witnessed an unprecedented exodus of city cops in the wake of the 2015 civil unrest and resulting disdain toward law enforcement. The commissioner has maintained that prior marijuana use has consistently been the main disqualifier of new applicants to the force, with 30 applications already being tossed aside in the first few months of 2017 over prior pot use.

The modified rule still places a restriction on past marijuana use, but it is a far more reasonable one. Rather than place an arbitrary number on the amount of times a person has smoked, the commission chose to impose simple mandatory three-year clean period. The Office of the Attorney General has already reviewed the modified regulation and starting June 1st only applicants that have used marijuana in the last three years will be barred by the state from becoming law enforcement officers. Individual police departments are free to choose to impose tougher restrictions if they choose, but in light of changing pot policy around the state and country it is unlikely that many will exercise this right. One thing we know for sure is that the state’s largest police department in Baltimore will not pursue tougher restrictions.

Despite the apparent show of flexibility by the police training and standards commission, the idea that prior casual pot smoking would bar someone from future employment is still asinine. It’s one thing if a department issues a drug test and the applicant fails, as the recreation use of marijuana is still illegal. But a three-year bar seems like pandering to the dwindling but still present establishment that cannot get over the illogical stigma attached to marijuana. Most of these establishment types reside in law enforcement or in the military, and are often those who drink two beers or whiskeys a day without giving it a thought. Alcohol is completely accepted if not promoted in the law enforcement and military culture despite the negative impact it has on thousands of individuals and their families each year. On the other hand the casual use of marijuana can cost a soldier, cop or federal agent his or her career. We are not in a place yet where marijuana is accepted on the same level as beer or liquor, but at least the new police regulations are a step in the right direction.

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thirteen-bags-of-marijuana-found-in-taxi-cabAnne Arundel County police officers recently executed a search warrant of an Annapolis home and recovered a massive stash of controlled substances. The stash was large in both volume and in variety, as police seized over 11 pounds of high quality marijuana as well as a large quantity of cocaine. Cops also discovered smaller but still significant amounts of LSD, ketamine, heroin and hash oil. Two men were arrested as a result of the search and seizure, which took place at around 3 in the afternoon. Charging documents allege that one of the men jumped out of a second story window and attempted to flee upon becoming aware of the police activity. This man, who lives in nearby Severna Park, allegedly threw a vial of ketamine into a neighbors yard before surrendering to law enforcement. The other defendant who lived at the house surrendered more quietly after opening the door for police. Both men are in their mid twenties and are now facing charges in the District Court for Anne Arundel County in Annapolis.

Although the two men were arrested together their current legal situations are much different. The 25-year old Severna Park man was released from custody and faces two misdemeanor drug possession charges, while the 23-year old remains in custody, and is facing a slew of felony charges. Some of these charges carry potential mandatory jail sentences that may come into play as the case moves to the Circuit Court. The felony charges consist of four counts of CDS possession with intent to distribute for each of the different types of drugs that were recovered. This includes one charge for possession with intent to distribute narcotics that is related to the cocaine, one count of possession with intent for the LSD, one for the marijuana and one for the ketamine.

The 23-year old defendant is also facing two counts of CDS possession large amount, which is a provision related to the drug kingpin laws that are aimed at deterring high-level drug trafficking. Under this statute the defendant is facing the possibility two five-year mandatory sentences for the cocaine and LSD that was recovered. The amount of cocaine required to trigger this charge is 448 grams and the police allegedly recovered 526 grams, and one thousand or more doses of LSD qualifies as a large amount under Maryland law and the police allegedly seized 1,800 doses. There was far more marijuana allegedly recovered in the Annapolis home that anything else, but the 11 pounds were way short of the 50-pound threshold for a CDS possession large amount pot charge.

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weed4-300x194Lawmakers celebrated the end of the state’s annual legislative session with balloons and confetti falling from the ceiling, but despite hundreds of passed bills not all elected officials left Annapolis feeling a sense of accomplishment. There were a few criminal law bills that passed the General Assembly including a measure that will classify human trafficking involving a minor as a sex offense, which will require a defendant to register upon conviction. In addition, lawmakers passed several bills taking aim at the heroin epidemic, a battle that the governor has greatly emphasized. But as has been the case for the last five years, marijuana once again dominated the criminal law headlines, and arguably stole the show for the entire legislative session. The irony in all of this is that medical marijuana is already state law, and has been for a few years now. Despite the lack of groundbreaking news on the topic it just keeps sparking intense debate, and this year the debate may continue even after the official end of the 2017 session.

Several lawmakers have called for a special legislative session to take place in the next few weeks to shore up contentious issues that could further delay the launch of Maryland’s medical cannabis program. Although registration for the program has already opened, with some 1,200 patients registering last week and more than 250 doctors signing on, medical cannabis is unlikely to be available by the September target date. There remain two disgruntled growers with pending litigation against the state after their applications were approved and then curiously dropped by the committee. In addition, democratic lawmakers are still pushing hard for the state to add five more licensed growers to the list of fifteen, which would include those with minority ownership. These House lawmakers tried until midnight on the last day of the session to convince their colleagues in the Senate to add more growers, and some even agreed to license the two growers that are suing, but time ran out before an agreement was reached.

Despite zeros on the clock, some lawmakers feel they still have a shot to increase the number of growers by calling a special legislative session. A special session may be called by the governor or a majority of lawmakers, and would likely last just one day. But before a special session could take place there would likely have to be some sort of agreement on whether to include the two disgruntled growers in the additional licenses. Right now though the House Speaker does not believe the legislature should take measures to help two specific private companies, and in direct contrast the Senate President believes that helping these two companies is crucial to launching the medical marijuana program within a reasonable amount of time. As the Blog has stated in prior posts, a simple way to avoid the contentious debate and imminent delay would be to eliminate the cap on the number of grower licenses. All qualified applicants should be allowed to profit off of the medical cannabis program, and the increased tax revenue and licensing fees would afford the state the additional resources to regulate all of the growers. There is no logical reason for an arbitrary cap, but as we all know there is little logic in politics.

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firearm-409000__480-200x300A Prince George’s County man was recently sentenced to just over ten years in prison followed by three years of probation for robbing a fast food restaurant in Hyattsville. The sentencing occurred last week at the United States District Court of Maryland in Greenbelt after the man pled guilty back in December. According to facts stated in the plea agreement the defendant, who was once an employee at the restaurant, entered wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a mask of the popular Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man. Upon entering the restaurant the masked robber brandished a revolver type handgun at one of the store employees and demanded access to the safe. After realizing the employee did not have access to the safe the robber could have fled the scene, but instead hid behind a wall and waited for the manager to return. The defendant later used his gun to corral the manager and other employees into the manager’s office, where he stole cash from the safe and then from a register on his way out. Before leaving the restaurant the defendant also sprayed and lit lighter fluid on the wall and floor, and fired multiple rounds from his revolver that struck the building. Prince George’s County Police were alerted to the scene during the robbery and located the defendant as he was attempting to flee in his vehicle. Rather than surrender, the masked robber led cops on a high speed chase. The chase did not last long, as the defendant eventually stopped his vehicle and was taken into custody without any further violence. Police ultimately recovered and entered into evidence over $2,000 cash and a revolver with three live rounds and three spent cartridges.

The defendant was charged with numerous offenses, but ultimately pled guilty to robbery and using, brandishing and discharging a firearm. The plea agreement called for a sentence of between 121 months and 14 years prison under the federal guidelines, and the judge ended up going with the lower end. While this case certainly had some terrible facts, the defense probably provided mitigation to offer to the judge on sentencing. It does not appear that the defendant has a prior criminal record in Maryland, and there may have been some mental health issues involved with the case, as the defendant apparently decided to rob the restaurant because he was upset over being fired.

The robbery actually occurred on Christmas Eve of 2014, which is a relatively long period of time for a case of this magnitude. There are several reasons why a case that seems open and shut could last over two years. Cases where the defendant has or is suspected to have a mental health disorder often taken longer to settle due to the need for professional evaluations and treatment prior to plea or trial. Despite an arrest by county officers, this particular case did not appear to originate in state court before the feds took over. Some cases, especially cases involving robbery and firearm use, are filed in state court and then later dismissed and refiled in federal court. This process can cause delays, although a 2+ year gap between arrest and sentencing is still high.