Practical Questions Confuse State’s Pot Decriminalization; Shore Reps Voted Against Bill

Practical Questions Confuse State’s Pot Decriminalization; Shore Reps Voted Against Bill

BERLIN — State lawmakers this week passed legislation that will decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, making it an offense akin to a traffic citation, but the jury is still out on the possible repercussions down on the street level.

The Maryland General Assembly this week passed legislation that will make the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense with a citation that can be paid by an offender without the threat of court appearances, jail time, probation and a permanent mark on his or her record. The bill allows for a fine of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense.

Basically, those found in possession of small amounts of marijuana will be issued a citation similar to a traffic ticket and will not be required to appear in court. Proponents of the bill suggest the time has come to take the next step in an eventual legalization of marijuana in Maryland, following the lead of other progressive states. Opponents, however, feel the bill was pushed through at the 11th hour on Monday with little regard for its possible repercussions. At any rate, the issue was certainly a galvanizing one during the session and most are waiting for the potential fallout.

In a resort town like Ocean City, there are hundreds and maybe thousands of arrests each year for simple possession of marijuana and most offenders are required to appear in court, typically resulting in fines and probation. The cases jam up court dockets and many seasonal officers return to Ocean City to appear for simple possession cases that are quickly resolved with probation and fines or dismissed outright.

However, the new law goes into effect in October and until the change is implemented, it will be business as usual for the OCPD over the next several months. OCPD spokesperson Lindsay O’Neal said this week the department will not immediately alter its policies regarding enforcement of possession of marijuana and will continue to make arrests and charge offenders until the change is implemented.

“This is still very fresh, but there are a lot of things to discuss and consider before the decriminalization of marijuana goes into effect,” she said. “We will be consulting with our State’s Attorney’s Office for guidance regarding enforcement.”

O’Neal said until the law goes into effect in October, the OCPD will continue to treat simple possession cases as it always has.

“All agencies will also be searching for guidance from the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association so that Maryland officers enforce uniformly across the entire state,” she said.  “Our commanders do promise, however, that possession of 10 grams or less will not be treated as a civil offense until the legislation goes into effect.”

Attorney Brian Clark, who represents dozens of clients in simple possession cases in Ocean City and around the state, said this week the new law will likely create some confusion in the short term. Clark said the bill decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but does not address the issue of actually smoking weed in public.

“It’s only decriminalizing those caught with small amounts and making it a civil, payable offense, much like a traffic ticket,” he said. “You can still request a trial. Marijuana is still illegal. As a parent, I think this new law is not the best solution for us or crafted as well as it could be. Many states that went down this road put in extra penalties against those caught lighting up in public to further discourage behavior that will offend those around you. There is none of that in this new law, but I think everyone understands it’s illegal, and I don’t foresee people lighting up in public due to it only being a fine.”

Clark said a similar bill passed in Washington, D.C. addresses the smoking in public issue, but Maryland’s bill falls short of that distinction.

“In the D.C. marijuana decriminalization bill that just passed, it’s still an arrestable criminal offense with a potential 60-day jail sentence if you are caught smoking pot in public or in a publicly accessible area in the District of Columbia,” he said. “Just possessing small amounts of pot is soon to be a civil fine like Maryland instituted in its new law, but they went a step further than we did to penalize those caught using it outside and made it a criminal offense. Many legislators think that distinction needs to be made. Even Amsterdam has similar laws.”

Lower Shore representatives in Annapolis voted against the bill. Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B), a career law enforcement officer, said the bill was pushed through at the 11th hour this week with many questions unanswered.

“They did an end around on the committee process,” he said. “It’s a half-baked bill. When you pass a half-baked bill, it creates half-baked problems. In a resort area like Ocean City, there are a lot of what we like to call nuisance crimes and simple possession is one of those. They have a pattern in place for how to deal with those and this changes all that.”

McDermott said the bill will likely half to be tweaked and altered in the future when the possible impacts ultimately shake out.

“People are already confused,” he said. “Don’t make public policy that confuses the very people you’re trying to protect. It’s going to take the next few years for the General Assembly to correct the flaws in this bill.”

Senator Jim Mathias, who represents Worcester and the Lower Shore and voted against the bill, agreed the legislation will create confusion about the enforcement of simple marijuana possession laws.

“We had the Wicomico Sheriff in here testifying against this along with the Salisbury Police and the OCPD,” he said. “In Ocean City, we’ve been very concerned about the different synthetic marijuanas that have been surfacing in recent years. This really complicates that.”

Mathias also pointed out the potential confusion over simple possession cases leading to arrests for more serious crimes.

“At this point, decriminalizing marijuana really complicates law enforcement, particularly when it comes to search and seizures,” he said. “We see plenty of cases where a small amount of marijuana observed in a vehicle leads to the discovery of other drugs or other offenses. This just complicates that whole process.”

Mathias said the decriminalization bill is likely a progression toward legalization of marijuana in Maryland, similar to the laws now in place in Colorado and Washington for example.

“I voted for medical marijuana because we’ve seen the benefits,” he said. “We can see where our country is going with marijuana. I’m certainly going to listen going forward, but right now it becomes very complicated in terms of law enforcement and societal impacts.”

Clark pointed out some of the fallacies in the bill. For example, while possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana will soon be a civil offense, the laws regarding the possession of paraphernalia have not changed. In essence, a person could be given a ticket for the possession of weed, but be arrested and ultimately jailed for having rolling papers or a bowl.

At any rate, the law has passed and is now headed to Governor Martin O’Malley’s desk for approval. O’Malley said this week he will sign the bill and evoked a seldom used word. Desuetude is a word describing an antiquated law that is still on the books but is rarely enforced.

“The General Assembly has decided after much consideration and with clear majorities in both chambers to send to my desk a bill that will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I plan to sign it,” he said. “As a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland. Desuetude is often a precursor of reform.”