Maryland Prosecutors To Deal With New Issues Associated With Decriminalization Of Marijuana

Last February, this blog discussed Maryland Senate Bill 297, which proposed to eliminate the potential for jail time as a punishment for possession of marijuana in favor of a maximum fine of $100, and remove the offense of marijuana possession, less than ten grams, from the state criminal code. On April 14, 2014, a similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 364, which decriminalizes marijuana, was signed into law by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and will become effective October 1, 2014.

The new law reduces the penalty for possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana from a criminal to a civil offense. First-time offenders face fines up to $100, while a second offense is punishable with a fine up to $250, and subsequent offenses up to $500. The new law also mandates that third-time offenders or offenders under the age of 21 be evaluated for substance abuse problems and attend drug education classes.

The current statute in effect makes possession of marijuana less than 10 grams a criminal misdemeanor with possible jail time of 90 days and or a $500 fine. Under current Maryland Annotated Code ยง5-601, a person who uses or possesses marijuana, more than 10 grams, is subject to imprisonment not exceeding 1 year or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both on a first offense. However, felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, manufacture, traffickers of marijuana, individuals in possession of large amounts of marijuana, or those who have previously been convicted of drug offenses may be subject to prosecution for more serious offenses with harsher penalties.

Prosecutors are struggling to address several challenges that they anticipate will arise due to the provisions of the new law. Although the law decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, possession of rolling papers, pipes and other marijuana accessories will remain a criminal offense. This means that a person could be charged criminally for the rolling papers used to make a joint, but not the marijuana inside if it is less than 10 grams.

Another problem for prosecutors will be determining when to charge an individual with the graduated fines that are supposed to be imposed for repeat offenders. According to a statement made by Baltimore County prosecuting attorney Scott Shellenberger, it will be difficult for law enforcement to establish whether an individual has been charged with marijuana possession before because prior offenses will not be documented in the criminal database.

A number of prosecutors from across the state sent Governor O’Malley a letter urging him not to sign the bill, arguing that it was passed too hastily. “Clearly we could’ve gotten a better bill than this,” commented Shellenberger. Shellenberger stated that Maryland’s prosecutors will send out guidelines for enforcing the new law, but all of the counties could not agree whether or not to arrest individuals for carrying marijuana accessories.

Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County, the Bill’s chief sponsor, indicated that the criminal penalties for possession of marijuana paraphernalia were intentionally left alone, stating that doing so would ensure that if police observe marijuana paraphernalia in a suspect’s vehicle, there would be legal grounds to conduct a search of the car. Zirkin stated that the legislature would consider eliminating penalties for marijuana paraphernalia next year.

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending individuals charged with drug crimes in both state and federal courts. If you or someone you know has been charged with a drug crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.