Maryland Could Have Increased Its Decriminalization Threshold—And Didn’t

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At the beginning of the 2020 legislative session,  Luke Jones of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Maryland (NORML) told The Outlaw Report that the “number one policy goal” for those pushing for cannabis reform in Maryland was House Bill 550, which would increase the decriminalization threshold in the state from 10 grams to one ounce. 

HB 550 (which did not have an analogous Senate Bill) was sponsored by Delegate Nick Mosby of Baltimore and was tied to racial justice. In short, the larger the amount decriminalized the less people arrested for cannabis which means, due to racially disproportionate policing, less Black people are arrested. Moreover, HB 550 would have put Maryland’s decriminalization threshold where it should have been back in 2014. When decriminalization was originally introduced, the threshold was one ounce but it was steadily brought down to 10 grams.

As The Outlaw Report has pointed out, 10 grams is below the average decriminalization threshold across the country and moreover, is not a common amount of cannabis sold in the aboveground or underground markets.

At a hearing about HB 550 in February, Delegate Nick Mosby and representatives from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and NORML, all stressed lives ruined by cannabis charges and how increasing the threshold would begin to reduce the amount of lives ruined. Additionally, former police officer Neill Franklin of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), which advocates for ending the drug war, stressed the limits of the 10 gram threshold when it comes to criminal justice reform.

“When we decriminalized 10 grams or less of marijuana here in Maryland, I thought that was going to solve a lot as relates to possession arrests as well as possession with intent to distribute,” Franklin said. “The public defender’s office has reached out to me on many occasions to help them with cases. In one particular jurisdiction, there were cases where individuals are being charged with possession with intent to distribute for less than 10 grams of marijuana.”

HB 550 successfully passed the House with a 94-43 vote on March 11. But the bill did not receive a vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and it was not explored further before the legislative session was ostensibly adjourned early due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And HB 550 was not considered part of the “emergency” bills that were voted on during the abbreviated session. In fact, one of the few cannabis-related bills to receive a vote was then  vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan. House Bill 83, which would have prevented cannabis possession convictions from going into Maryland Case Search, the state’s court database, was vetoed by Hogan as part of his frustration with the House not passing the controversial Violent Firearm Offenders Act of 2020.

Since then, Virginia has passed a decriminalization bill for the first time—with the one ounce threshold—and of course, there has been a racial reckoning across the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd and months of brutal police repression against protesters. At the center of this moment has been an expansive look at systemic racism which has included, the racist war on drugs and how even cannabis, which has been legalized in some states and decriminalized in many, disproportionately affects Black Americans. 

Increasing the decriminalization threshold is only the start of reducing arrests—and racist policing—for cannabis but Maryland, by not passing HB 550, is now even further behind the curve. And that’s after 2019’s Marijuana Legalization Work Group decided it would not recommend legalization during Maryland’s 2020 legislative session.

Since the bill passed the House in March, Mosby won the Democratic primary in Baltimore and was elected City Council President. The Outlaw Report has reached out to Delegate Nick Mosby for comment on the future of HB 550 and has not received a response.

Maryland State House photo by Martin Falbisoner / Courtesy Creative Commons.

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