Remembering when Maryland joined the decriminalization movement

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 18, 2019

Scrolling through the archives, I found this, my piece summing up 2014’s momentous cannabis-law changes:

High Times: The winners and losers in Maryland’s pot debate in 2014

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 1, 2014

Come Oct. 1, people in Maryland caught with less than 10 grams of pot or less will no longer face criminal penalties, thanks to the April 7 passage of a marijuana-decriminalization bill in the Maryland General Assembly, which Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed on April 14.

In a statement about the measure’s passage, O’Malley used an arcane legal term—desuetude, which refers to the process of a law lapsing or becoming unenforceable by lack of will to prosecute it—to sum up his feelings on the matter. The bill’s ultimate success in the legislature, he said, is “an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health.”

The reality in recent years, O’Malley said, is that “as a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even a second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland,” adding that “desuetude is often a precursor of reform.”

But O’Malley’s statement misses the point for the thousands of people each year who have been charged or convicted as criminals in Maryland for having small amounts of marijuana. The nearly 20,000 small-amount pot violations entered into Maryland court records in fiscal year 2013—almost 3,100 of which resulted in criminal fines or time behind bars for those charged, according to figures provided by Maryland courts to the legislature during this year’s debate—point to the potentially dramatic impact decriminalization can have on many Marylanders’ lives.

Data on pot arrests in Baltimore City are glumly relevant on this score. In all of 2013, Baltimore City police conducted 3,620 arrests for possessing less than 10 grams of weed. The average age of those arrested was 28 years old, and 92 percent were African-American. In the first three months of 2014, there were another 699 arrests; 90 percent of those arrested were African-American and, again, the average age was 28. Thus, every month, hundreds of young African-Americans in Baltimore City are locked up for having a little bit of weed in their pockets, arrests that will show up in their criminal records all their lives. Starting in October, that will come to an end.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who opposed the decriminalization bill, now says she finds solace in the measure’s potential to reduce arrests. “The racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession is [sic] appalling,” Rawlings-Blake says in a statement to City Paper. “Now that decriminalization is the law, my administration will fully support implementation,” she adds, “and I hope that it leads to a decrease in arrests for African Americans.”

Obviously, then, the big winners in this picture are the Free State’s many dope smokers, since an avenue to avoid criminal charges is opening up. Navigating that avenue, though, may prove more complicated than it first appears, so risk-averse tokers should proceed with caution.

Consider, for instance, where the 10-gram threshold falls in the typical small-time pot-buying scenario. Your friendly neighborhood dealer typically sells in fractions-of-an-ounce increments. If you’re caught holding an eighth-ounce bag, which weighs about 3.5 grams, or a quarter-ounce bag, you’re just facing a civil fine. If you’re a first-time offender who is 21 or older, you’ll be on the hook for $100, and second and third offenses will up the ante to $250 and $500, respectively, while drug treatment may be ordered if you’re under 21 or a third-timer. But if you buy a half-ounce bag, which weighs more than the 10-gram threshold, and a cop catches you with it, you’re looking at the same old misdemeanor criminal charge, carrying maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Consumer-oriented dealers, then, might consider selling in 9.5-gram intervals, just to keep their customers on the safe side of the law. There could even be a new term for this, something like a “fine bag,” meaning it’s pretty much fine to carry it around with you, or that you just get a fine.

But there’s another wrinkle to consider: Devices used to smoke pot—even rolling papers, if they’re used to roll joints—are still outlawed, and those caught with them catch a criminal charge carrying a maximum $500 fine but no jail time for first-time offenders. Perhaps, then, you could chuck your bong, bowl, or vaporizer, and head to the kitchen to cook small batches of pot cookies or brownies instead (see “Getting Baked,” page 41), so as not to bear the risk of carrying any paraphernalia. But this approach is fraught too: If a cop catches you with the cookies, and detects they have THC in them, can’t you be charged based on the weight of the cookies? Probably. So even a single cookie or brownie—unless it is under 10 grams, which would be a very, very small confection—could land you in lockup.

Thus, despite decriminalization, it will continue to be hard to use pot in Maryland without risking criminal charges. But tokers are still the big winners, since far fewer of them are likely to get arrested or otherwise end up with criminal records in the future.

Besides dope smokers, the other decriminalization winners are the players in the state’s criminal justice system, which will see resources freed up to manage more pressing concerns. As the fiscal analysis of the bill puts it, “workloads for local law enforcement agencies may decrease to the extent that the citation process involves less administrative time than an arrest.” By extension, the same holds true for prosecutors and judges, who won’t have to adjudicate such cases, while decriminalization “significantly decreases caseloads” for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD), the analysis explains, allowing “resources spent on these cases” to be “shifted to other OPD cases and duties.” Local jails, meanwhile, won’t be detaining small-time pot possessors, saving $60 to $160 per day for each such inmate not serving time, the analysis notes.

Also in the winner category is the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which will become the recipient of the revenue derived from pot fines in order to underwrite drug-treatment and education programs. With a new money spigot, though, can come new headaches. As the analysis states: “[I]t is unclear what would happen to any unexpended funds at the end of a fiscal year.”

The reform, similar to those in place in at least 15 other states, passed in dramatic fashion in the final days of the Maryland General Assembly’s session and was an impressive affront to the remarkable institutional deference usually afforded to one powerful man: the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman for more than 20 years, Prince George’s and Calvert counties state Del. Joseph Vallario (D), a 77-year-old criminal-defense attorney and a staunch opponent of decriminalizing pot.

As the end of the session neared, Vallario’s committee amended the bill to relegate the prospect of decriminalization to two years of study by a task force. A revolt ensued, spearheaded by members of the Legislative Black Caucus. They stressed the thousands of new criminal cases that would be filed against Maryland citizens during two years of task-force navel-gazing, a disproportionate number of which would name African-Americans as defendants. Amazingly, the revolt succeeded.

In a fit of rhetorical cynicism, one could make the case that Vallario’s opposition to decriminalization is subliminal allegiance to the revenues he and his colleagues at the bar derive from those charged in small-time pot cases. A review of the state’s online court records reveals that in the past three years, Vallario has had at least 36 such defendants—a fraction of his overall client base, but nothing to sneeze at, nonetheless, especially since their cases, which involved no other more serious charges such as pot-dealing or weapons, were likely pretty easy to resolve. That argument, though, is perhaps unfair—as a group, criminal-defense attorneys have been vocal supporters of decriminalization; there are plenty of other, more serious crimes that generate far greater fees.

So, if not criminal-defense attorneys, who loses? State Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore City) has an interesting perspective on this question. She says that “ultimately, black kids are the ones who are going to be hurt” by decriminalization, because “police officers are going to shake them down, lock them up, and hold them for 10 hours in lockup before saying, ‘Oh, it’s not enough to charge you.’ I don’t have any faith in the State’s Attorney’s Office or the police department to make good decisions when they’re faced with a kid with some marijuana in his pocket.”

Gladden voted against the decriminalization bill when it was before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for which she serves as a vice chair, and either didn’t vote or voted against it in two Senate floor votes. Why? “I’m tired of taking half-steps. We’re not doing this right. I would rather make it legal and call it a day. We need to legalize it so we can get the cops out of the game completely.”

And that, of course, is the end game here. O’Malley said desuetude stirs the winds of reform. Perhaps, upon tasting the fruits of decriminalization, lawmakers will develop an appetite for legalization, with its tempting potential for tax revenue and free-falling costs for enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. As Gladden points out, “it’s a money-maker.” At that point, perhaps, there will be no losers—except maybe your friendly neighborhood drug dealers.

CannaBuzz: Maryland considers universal basic income modeled on Alaska’s, but fueled by cannabis rather than oil

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 7, 2019

As the U.S. economy increasingly fails to produce sufficient low-income jobs to prevent extreme working poverty, and as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow unsustainably, discussions have turned to mechanisms that would pay everyone a universal basic income (UBI). (Here’s a decent explainer.) In Alaska, the government has been doing it for decades, setting aside oil revenues to cut checks of up to $2000 a month to every resident since the scheme, created by a libertarian-leaning Republican legislature in 1977, started making payouts in the early 1980s.

Now in Annapolis, Montgomery County state Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-District 39) would like to see Maryland do the same thing, but funding would come from the revenue stream created by the state’s nascent, but fast-growing, medical-cannabis industry. By setting aside 25 percent of medical-cannabis revenues, the Maryland People’s Fund would be seeded for investment by the state treasurer – and eventual payouts could grow substantially with additional future funding from fully legal weed, should Maryland go the tax-and-regulate route.

As currently proposed in House Bill 1089, the Maryland People’s Fund would have humble beginnings. According to the fiscal note on the bill, prepared by the Department of Legislative Services, a single government position costing about $60,000 per year could handle the creation and maintenance of the fund, and, assuming projected medical-cannabis growth in the coming years, the fund would have nearly $4 million available for investment by the treasurer by 2024. Payouts would await the fund’s future growth into meaningful UBI source.

The fund would provide not “a hand out, but a hand up,” Acevero told the Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee on March 1, and would be “yet another transformative policy” to “put a dent in extreme poverty.”

Also testifying in support of the measure was Ioana Marinescu, an economist at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. She explained that some of her research addressed critics’ concerns that “if we give people free money, they are not going to be working.” But “the share of Alaskans that were working remained the same” in “every year after the dividend was introduced” in the 1980s, Marinescu explained. Meanwhile, the “positive effects” of UBI in Alaska have been measurable “in terms of health and education, especially among the poorest families,” where “improvement in mental health and decrease in drug addiction” were observed.

“This is the start of the conversation” about UBI in Maryland, Acevero told his House colleagues, stressing that the proposal “really raises all families” and “is a bipartisan issue.” Using cannabis revenues to underwrite it may be just the beginning – “we can also look at other sources,” he explained, in response to legislators’ questions.

 

 

CannaBuzz: Maryland Senate committee greenlights cannabis bills

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 5, 2019

The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPC) yesterday gave thumbs up to three cannabis bills, while the first Maryland House of Delegates-approved cannabis bill of the General Assembly session – to add more licensed professionals who can certify medical-cannabis patients, which passed overwhelmingly, 122-14, on Feb. 15 – awaits its consideration.

Senate Bill 97 seeks to prevent licensed gun-owners from losing Second Amendment rights should they join Maryland’s medical-cannabis program. The JPC gave it unanimous approval, with bipartisan sponsorship by members Michael Hough (R-District 4, Carroll and Frederick counties), Justin Ready (R-District 5, Carroll County), Chris West (R-District 42, Baltimore County), and chair Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11, Baltimore County).

Senate Bill 858 aims to boost cannabis-related academic research by providing access to medical cannabis to licensed researchers. Sponsored by JPC chair Zirkin, it too received unanimous committee approval.

Senate Bill 860 would resolve a nettlesome matter for the state’s corrections community – both inmates and officials – by establishing that certified medical-cannabis patients’ supervision, probation, or parole can’t be revoked for lawful use of medical cannabis.

All three JPC-approved bills next go to Senate floor vote.

The JPC also yesterday gave thumbs down to two bills: Senate Bill 86, which sought to assure that possession of weed, medical or not, stays illegal in correctional settings, including for offenders still on probation; and Senate Bill 855, which would have required corrections officials to provide inmates with access to the state’s medical-cannabis program.

 

 

CannaBuzz: Maryland driving-and-toking bill gets vigorous nod from prosecutors

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 1, 2019

“How could it be that it’s okay to have a bong in your car, and smoking it, but you’re not able to have an open container of alcohol?” Steve Kroll, speaking on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association (MSAA), on Feb. 26 asked of the Maryland senators he hopes will vote to close a driving-with-weed loophole that has become an incongruence in the age of decriminalization.

In the real world, if police observed someone doing bong hits in a car, it’d be a good bet that charges would result. But the prosecutor’s point remains: “Our goal is … safe driving,” Kroll explained to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPC), adding, “this is a driving bill more than it is a marijuana bill.”

It would accomplish that by, in essence, adding cannabis to the existing open-container law that currently pertains only to alcohol, as FSC reported in prior coverage. Someone caught using cannibis in the passenger area of a vehicle, moving or not on a highway, would be subject to a $500 misdemeanor crime and a point on their driving record, or three points should the violation involve an accident, if Senate Bill 418 becomes law.

“All this does is put marijuana on the same footing as Bud Light in terms of having it in your car,” Senator sponsor Robert Cassilly (R-District 34) of Harford County told his colleagues during his testimony.

“It’s important,” Cassilly added, “as marijuana use becomes more prevalent and because we’ve decriminalized the use of marijuana, that we send the appropriate message.” In this case, he continued, the message is directed “to particularly the young drivers: that marijuana is not an appropriate substitute for the Budweiser that you’d like to drink in your car, that you can’t just simply drop off one kind of bud for another.”

JPC vice chair William Smith Jr. (D-District 20, Montgomery County) asked about how the bill would address “edibles,” the broad range of cannabis products that produce no second-hand smoke because they are eaten, not combusted.

“Edibles would not apply to passengers, only to drivers” explained MSAA’s David Daggett, adding that “primarily we’re concerned with the passenger smoking and the driver smoking” because cannabis smoke can affect others in a vehicle’s passenger area.

If opposition to the bill exists, no one rose to voice it during the Feb. 26 hearing. Testimony on its Democrat-sponsored companion bill, House Bill 350, was taken by the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 19.

 

CannaBuzz: Maryland cannabis patients’ gun-rights bill draws no opposition

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 28, 2019

Many Marylanders considering certification as medical cannabis patients balk once they learn they would sacrifice firearms rights as a result, according to Maryland Senate testimony on Tuesday by Robert Davis, an Eastern Shore pharmacist and dispensary clinical director.

“It is keeping away at least 20 to 30 percent of potential certified patients from joining the system,” Davis told the Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPC). “People are scared to lose their guns, to have someone knocking at their door,” Davis continued, so they “are still utilizing the black market” to obtain cannabis.

A bipartisan bill would cure this conundrum, assuring that, if passed into the law, cannabis certification could no longer be a disqualification for licensed gun ownership. Republican state Sen. Michael Hough (District 4, Carroll and Frederick counties), who is joined by JPC chair Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11, Baltimore County) in sponsoring Senate Bill 97, told the committee the measure would “change Maryland’s laws to reflect the simple truth that medicine that people are prescribed should not be used to discriminate them from practicing their Second Amendment rights.”

If opposition to the bill exists, no one at the hearing rose to testify against it.

Eric Stamper, who described himself as a Maryland medical-cannabis patient with 23 years in the U.S. Navy under his belt, told the committee that “the government has spent a lot of money to train me” in weaponry, and yet “I’ve lost my Second Amendment rights.”

Olivia Naugle, legislative coordinator for pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, told the committee that patients “should not have to choose between their civil right and their human right to treat their pain or illness.” She also seconded a point that Hough had made – that use of prescribed drugs more dangerous than cannabis, such as opioids, does not disqualify a patient’s firearm licensing, so neither should medical cannabis.

More enigmatic testimony came from Max Davidson, executive director of the Maryland Patient Rights Association, a medical-cannabis advocacy group. He seemed to be suggesting that, had he not been disqualified from gun ownership due to his cannabis card, he would’ve found a handgun useful for self defense in Baltimore City on two occasions.

“I’ve been a victim of violent crime in Baltimore City. Not a surprise, that happens a lot in Baltimore City,” Davidson explained to the committee. “But I can’t get a gun to defend myself.”

Here’s how Davidson described the first instance: “I was a victim of violent crime and the police tried to arrest me simply for the fact that I had a marijuana lapel pin. They were little kids that tried to rob me. Didn’t care that they assaulted me, let them go.” But, “due to the law, I can’t get a gun to defend myself.”

The second incident he described as follows: “I’ve also been almost a victim of violent crime at the dispensary I was working at. I had a person who had a hit list come in and start trouble and kept coming back and wanting to cause harm on me. Could not defend myself. If it wasn’t for the armed security at the dispensary, I might not be here to testify today.”

In either case, the scenarios raise the question of how brandishing or discharging a firearm in self defense would have brought them to safer conclusions. Perhaps Davidson is the exception that proves the rule on the guns-and-weed policy question.

CannaBuzz: Maryland Senate to air a big chunk of med-pot agenda today

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 26, 2019

The press has dubbed today “medical marijuana day” in Maryland, due to the high number of bills receiving hearings before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee starting at 1pm in Annapolis. The committee’s chair, Baltimore County Democrat Bobby Zirkin (11th District), has been instrumental in the creation of the state’s still-young medical cannabis industry, which is in the midst of a growth spurt that’s anticipated to reach $440 million by 2024. Not surprisingly, as FSC has reported, Zirkin’s political campaign committee trails only those of House Speaker Mike Bush (D), Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller (D) in the amount of money contributed by med-pot businesses.

FSC previously covered several of the bill’s that will be considered today:

Three Western Maryland Republicans  – state Sen. Andrew Serafini (District 2) and state Dels. William Wivell (District 2A) and Mike McKay (District 1C) – want to assure that possession of weed, medical or not, stays illegal in correctional settings, including for offenders still on probation.

Zirkin and Republican state Sen. Michael Hough (District 4, Frederick and Carroll counties) would like to see gun owners in the state’s medical-cannabis program be protected from being deprived of their firearms rights.

Harford County Republican state Sen. Robert Cassilly (District 34) joins four House Democrats – Prince George’s County state Dels. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (District 23A), Baltimore City state Del. Curt Anderson (District 43), Howard County state Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (District 13), and Calvert and Prince George’s counties state Del. Michael Jackson (District 27B) – in seeking to make punishment for being caught smoking cannabis in a vehicle on the highway the same as it is for an open container of alcohol.

Baltimore County Republican state Sen. Chris West (District 42) wants to allow investors to back as many as six medical-cannabis licenses – up from what was previously understood to be one, until pot investors’ lawyers muddied up the water on this point of law once the cat was already out of the bag.

An ethics bill that would put a full year between the date of leaving an agency post at the Maryland Medical Marijuana Commission (MCC) and new employment with an MCC-licensed grower, processor, or dispenary enjoys potent support.

A tax-and-regulate bill for fully legalized cannabis is being considered, sponsored entirely by Democrats, though the route to legalization – via straight-up legislative passage, or a bill that would put the matter to voters – has been tabled to a study group that will look at the question and report back in December.

The House version of Zirkin’s bill to allow med-pot dispensaries to serve THC- and CBD-laced food to certified patients and caregivers, sponsored by Baltimore City state Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-District 45), has had its committee hearing cancelled, so it looks like the Senate version is the one carrying the ball this session.

Zirkin’s bill seeking to give opioid sufferers access to legal weed, which Glenn has introduced in the House, is part of a larger effort to fit medical cannabis into society’s addiction-management rubric.

FSC has yet to delve into the remaining 11 bills being heard today, but, in time, they too will get the attention they deserve. With luck, FSC will be able to attend some of today’s hearings and report back later.

CannaBuzz: GOP delegates want law to make Maryland Attorney General advertise risks of cannabis use

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 15, 2019

If Maryland enacts any additional cannabis-law liberalization, then, under a bill introduced this General Assembly session by state Del. Rick Impallaria (R-7th District, Baltimore and Harford counties), the state’s attorney general would be required to undertake an advertising blitz to inform the public of the ongoing risks of using cannabis.

The risks described in House Bill 1307 are:

  • “Arrest for activity relating to marijuana by the Federal government, especially if the activity occurs on federal facilities, such as military bases, federal offices, federal parks, airports, and marine terminals.”
  • “Testing positive for marijuana use can result in job loss, especially if the job requires state licensing such as jobs in the medical and transportation industries.”
  •  “It will still be unlawful for banks and businesses to do business with someone who is receiving proceeds related to marijuana.”
  • “Filing a federal income tax return involving the receipt of proceeds related to marijuana can lead to prosecution for profiting from a federally illegal business, while failure to file an income tax return can also lead to prosecution.”
  • “There are health risks associated with smoking marijuana.”

If the bill becomes law, then the Attorney General, “at least 90 days before the implementation of any law that reduces the penalties for or legalizes the use of marijuana,” the bill states, “shall establish a system to notify the public” of the risks described in the bill. The notification system “shall include the creation of a website and public service announcements for radio, television, newspapers, and billboards.”

Impallaria is a controversial figure in Maryland politics – even fellow Republicans have called for him to resign – due to his long history of entanglements with the criminal-justice system. The bill is co-sponsored by state Del. Joseph Boteler (R-8th District, Baltimore County).