House and Senate lawmakers are making another attempt this session to limit criminal penalties for Marylanders who use illicit drugs.
House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair David Moon (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) are supporting legislation to move first and second offenses for the possession of small quantities of controlled dangerous substances to civil rather than criminal offenses.
”Lowering penalties for possession of amounts of drugs too small to merit consideration in a court of law would bring our criminal justice system into the 21st century,” Jennifer Mendes Dwyer, deputy executive director of Progressive Maryland, said in a statement Tuesday.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Moon said the legislation is an “attempt to codify some personal use amount limit.” But he’d prefer it if lawmakers focus on the idea that a public health response is better than a carceral response for low-level, non-violent possession cases.
“We need to have a conversation about whether a criminal justice response is the appropriate one, so this is a first step to try and get us there,” Moon said.
- 10 grams of cannabis;
- Two grams of cocaine;
- 1.5 grams of crack;
- One gram of heroin;
- One gram or five tablets of ecstasy;
- 40 tabs of LSD;
- 40 doses of methadone;
- Two grams of meth; or
- 40 tablets of oxycodone.
Penalties for first offense convictions for possession of those amounts would be subject to a $100 fine. Second offenses would be punishable by a $150 fine, excluding cannabis.
A third conviction for 10 grams or less of cannabis would be punishable by a $200 fine and mandatory enrollment in a drug education program and a mental health and drug abuse assessment.
Referrals to these programs would be mandatory for first and second convictions of small quantities of the remaining controlled dangerous substances.
Moon attempted to usher this policy through the legislature during the 2021 regular session, but it died in the House Judiciary Committee.
Under current law, possession of these drugs of any amount — excluding cannabis — is punishable by:
- One year imprisonment and a $5,000 fine for the first offense;
- 18 months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine for the second or third offense; and
- Two years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine for any subsequent convictions.
Elizabeth Hilliard, a public defender, told House lawmakers that a shift in policy would “[encourage] us to view drug use as the public health crisis it is. We cannot jail away these problems, we cannot incarcerate away these problems.”
Thomas Higdon, representing the Recovery Advocacy Project and the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee of his own struggle with addiction.
Higdon said that he developed a drinking problem in his twenties which eventually led to a “full-blown crack cocaine addiction” lasting two decades.
“While crack addiction was terrible — and let me tell you, it is as terrible as people make it out to be — what was worse was the policies in place that I had to deal with,” he said.
According to Higdon, his interactions with the justice system only made it more difficult to enter into and sustain recovery because of the discrimination in housing and employment that came with a criminal record.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) asked why the focus should be on decriminalization of these quantities of drugs, which he said seemed like a lot.
Communities United representative Shaquille Carbon, who grew up in a family that used and sold drugs, said “with absolute certainty” that “these are definitely 100% in line with what people who are users buy.”
“This is not really consistent with what drug dealers would have in a stash … or typically have in a car,” Carbon said.
Higdon asked the committee if any of them drink alcohol.
“…when you go to the liquor store, you purchase more than you are going to consume in that one sitting,” he said. It’s the same with drugs, he continued.
Testifying in opposition to the legislation was Baltimore County Assistant State’s Attorney and representative of the State’s Attorneys’ Association, John Cox.
He said that there are “benefits” to using arms of the criminal justice system as a means to get treatment, including drug court.
“This is basically the equivalent of a traffic ticket,” Cox said. “You don’t even have to go to court.”
Moon and Carter also introduced for the third time legislation to decriminalize the possession of syringes, hypodermic needles and any other tools used to introduce drugs into the body intravenously.
If enacted, the legislation would also reduce the penalty for possession of such drug paraphernalia from a maximum of four years in prison and a $25,000 fine to one year in prison and a $1,000.
That bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week along party lines and was heard on the House floor Tuesday with no discussion.
It still needs final approval in the House before it’s passed along to the Senate.
The Senate version has yet to come up for a vote in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report misspelled Thomas Higdon’s name. A correction was made on March 9, 2022 at 2:30 p.m.