House Bill 550 Wants to Increase Maryland Decriminalization Threshold

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If legalization of cannabis for adult-use is ostensibly off the table in Maryland during the 2020 legislative session, then a House Bill sponsored by Delegate Nick Mosby will still lead to some incremental change: HB 550 increases the amount of cannabis categorized as a civil offense from 10 grams to one ounce and makes it so that someone could not be charged with possession with intent to distribute simply because they had an an ounce or less.

Maryland’s current 10 gram decriminalization threshold is among the lowest in the United States. Only Missouri shares that threshold— Illinois’ threshold was also 10 grams until last year when the state legalized cannabis—while Hawaii’s threshold is at the even lower three grams. 10 grams is also generally, a strange measurement, landing somewhere between a quarter and a half-an-ounce, not an amount of cannabis that is commonly sold.

Low thresholds also serve to benefit police and increase the likelihood among those who use cannabis of arrest. The Outlaw Report has learned of police throughout Maryland using the hard-to-determine 10 grams threshold to detain people for additional time—often, vindictively—while they weigh the cannabis, and some cops even counting the container or package containing cannabis as part of the overall weight in attempt to to push it over the limit to make it a possession charge.

“HB 550 would reduce the number of arrests and criminal charges for marijuana possession,” the Marijuana Policy Project said on its website. “Arrests for simple possession can be traumatic, and a criminal conviction can hinder one’s ability to obtain a job, housing, or a college education.”

Increasing the decriminalization threshold is a significant stop-gap measure. And with legalization in Maryland more of an issue of “when” than “if” at this point, the threshold will lead to less people being arrested for possession overall and that, over time, will lead to less people needing records expunged once legalization does happen.

Studies show that while the overall number of people charged for possession will decrease when the threshold is increased, it has not adjusted racially disproportionate arrests by police. Last June, when Nick Mosby’s wife, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby testified before the United States Congress about decriminalization of cannabis, she also argued for legalization precisely because black people continue to be disproportionately arrested even post-decriminalization: “What we’ve seen with the mere decriminalization of marijuana is that the discriminatory enforcement still exists,” Mosby testified.

In some ways, Maryland’s cannabis policies have circled back to the debates of 2014 leading up to then-Governor Martin O’Malley signing the bill which reduced the penalty for possession of 10 grams or less to citation or fine, and decriminalized cannabis. At the time, then-Delegate Heather Mizeur—who supported adult-use legalization—first proposed the decriminalization threshold of an ounce rather than a gram but that bill did not get out of the House Judiciary Committee. Senators Alan Kittleman and Bobby Zirkin’s proposal which put the threshold at 10 grams instead did pass both houses and was the one eventually signed by O’Malley.

In 2018, Zirkin even introduced a bill to raise the threshold to an ounce. It passed the Senate but never received a vote in the House of Delegates. “The randomness of 10 grams, it just doesn’t correspond to anything,” Zirkin said to The Baltimore Sun at the time. “It was a number picked out of the sky by the House Judiciary committee.”

Baltimore Del. Nick Mosby’s HB 550 is also another example of how Baltimore, as its representatives ascend to political power in Annapolis, is leading the way on cannabis reform. Baltimore City’s Bill Ferguson—who is a co-chair of the Maryland Marijuana Legalization Workgroup—is now State Senate President. Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott and State Senator Mary Washington, who represents Baltimore’s 43rd District, have endorsed cannabis legalization. And Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby made news last year when she announced her office would no longer prosecute possession of any amount of cannabis—a much-praised workaround to reduce the number of cannabis arrests in the city amid decriminalization: “There is no better illumination of this country’s failed war on drugs than the city of Baltimore, Maryland,” Mosby told Congress last year.

There is a a House Judiciary Committee public hearing for HB 550 on Tuesday, February 11 at 1:00 p.m. at the House Office Building in Annapolis.

Luke Jones of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Maryland (NORML) did note that HB 550 does not have a companion bill in the Senate.

“Nick Mosby’s bill to raise the decriminalization threshold does not have a Senator cosponsor,” Jones told The Outlaw Report. “This bill is our number one priority, so this was initially of concern to us—to not have a Senate companion bill—however it’s not unusual for a bill to take root in one chamber and cross over and be taken up to alternative chamber.”

Jones added that he hopes, “House Speaker Adrienne Jones and her leadership in the House will send this bill to the Senate.”

Graphic showing total misdemeanor cannabis possession arrests by zip code in Baltimore, 2015-2017. by Charlie Herrick and Andy Friedman (with research by Andy Friedman) via the Baltimore Institute of Nonprofit Journalism.

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