New Marijuana Laws Raise Complex Legal Questions

As news of legalized marijuana continues to spread across the country, Maryland is now getting its turn…in a way. A new law has already taken effect that reduces the penalties for being found with marijuana, and while the new law doesn’t make possession completely legal, it significantly reduces the consequences for being found with marijuana in your possession.

New Law Decriminalizes Possession of Marijuana

It used to be that possessing marijuana was a crime, punishable by the criminal code with possible jail time. But as of October 1, 2014, possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana will now be considered a “non-criminal” event, meaning that while you can still be punished with fines, there is no jail time, and the offense is not classified as a criminal offense. It isn’t much different than a traffic infraction or parking ticket.

It is still a crime to carry drug paraphernalia. Possessing over 10 grams of marijuana is still a crime. If it’s found that you had an intent to distribute marijuana, that’s still a crime, regardless of how much pot is found.

This begs the question of how an officer knows how much pot is too much just by looking. Officers won’t be carrying scales with them in the streets, and the difference between 8 grams and 11 is not an easy distinction to make by eye.

Maryland law enforcement agencies have decided that they will use the ever-so-trustworthy “best guess,” and may arrest if the amount of pot simply looks like 10 grams.

So, although it’s not a criminal offense to have 9 grams of pot, you can still potentially be hauled to the station for an official “weighing.” After weighing the pot, if it later turns out that there was less, citizens will be allowed to leave (with, of course, their official citation, and of course, without their pot).

If it turns out that it was more than 10 grams, but they thought it was less than 10 and only issued a citation, they won’t track you down and press the more serious criminal charges.

Legal Issues May Arise From Searches

The new law brings up loads of very complex legal issues.

The most obvious are the maintenance and uniformity of the scales being used. When fractions of grams make a difference between criminal and non-criminal infractions, law enforcement should have an obligation to use properly calibrated, functioning, highly accurate equipment. It’s unknown whether that will be the case.

Probable cause is a big problem as well. Normally, an officer that observes you committing a crime has probable cause to search you or your belongings. How does an officer know if probable cause exists if she doesn’t know whether you have 9 grams (which may not provide probable cause to search you, not being a criminal offense), or 11 grams (which would provide probable cause)?

What happens if, for example, an officer searches your glove compartment because he’s convinced you have 11 grams of pot? There, he finds an illegal handgun. Later, it turns out you only had 9 grams of pot. Is the search of your glove compartment now rendered illegal?

These are legal issues that play themselves out in criminal courts all the time. It looks like with the passage of the new law, there will be some significant legal questions related not just to marijuana, but other criminal charges as well.

Do you have questions about any search, seizure, or new criminal laws? The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.