Maryland General Assembly Considers Decriminalizing An Ounce Of Cannabis…Again

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Last week the Maryland General Assembly held hearings in both the House and Senate to discuss increasing the amount of cannabis decriminalized for personal use from 10 grams to one ounce (26 grams). 

The House of Delegates passed this measure in 2020 as HB 550 but did not send the legislation to the Senate in time for the session to adjourn due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation was resubmitted to the House in 2021 by Montgomery County Delegate David Moon as HB 0324 and analogously in the Senate as SB 0143 by Montgomery County Senator Jeff Waldstreicher and Baltimore City Senator Jill Carter. 

The twin bills were discussed in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee on January 18 and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on January 20. 

Yanet Ammanuel, Public Policy Expert at the ACLU of Maryland, said in her testimony at the senate hearing “we believe that by increasing the legal limit and setting the threshold to an ounce or less so that it’s not enough to charge someone with possession with intent to distribute, we could potentially divert distribution charges, reduce the incarcerated population, conserve judicial resources, save taxpayer dollars and avoid the disruption of lives caused by unnecessary entanglement with the criminal legal system.” 

Ammanuel added that this is “especially…critical now” due to COVID-19: “We’re in a global pandemic and our presence in jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases.” 

The General Assembly decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis for personal use in 2014 which means anyone caught with under 10 grams will receive a civil fine of $100 while anyone caught with more than 10 grams of cannabis can still be charged with criminal possession, carrying a maximum sentence of one year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine. 

Those found with over 10 grams of cannabis along with evidence that might suggest the intent to sell the cannabis, such as plastic baggies or a scale, could be charged with possession with intent to distribute, carrying a maximum sentence of up to five years or with a maximum fine of $15,000. This legislation would increase the legal threshold that would allow police to arrest an individual for possession or intent to distribute from 10 grams to one ounce. 

Ammanuel informed the legislature that of the 1,314 people arrested for cannabis possession in Baltimore County between 2018 and 2019, 80 percent were Black despite making up only 30 percent of the county’s total population. This, Emmanuel said, indicates that the nationwide trend of prosecuting people of color more frequently for possession of cannabis persists beyond the state’s decriminalization of 10 grams.

Decriminalizing a larger quantity of cannabis could reduce the disproportionate arrest and prosecution of people of color for possession with or without intent to distribute.

Maryland medical cannabis patients are legally permitted to purchase a minimum of four ounces of cannabis flower per month, depending on the allotment prescribed by your doctor. Of the 26 states which have decriminalized small amounts of cannabis for personal use, Maryland has the second lowest minimum legal threshold in the country of 10 grams after Hawaii at three grams. Even Virginia, Maryland’s usually more conservative sister state, decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of cannabis in 2020, imposing only a fine of $25 for those caught with less than 26 grams.

Senate bill sponsor Sen. Waldstreicher said in his testimony “many of us believe that the solution here is to fully legalize personal amounts of cannabis, but standing up an entirely new industry during a session over Zoom is unlikely, so we need a bridge, a bridge that takes us from where we are now to the possibility of full legalization.” 

The General Assembly is holding their 2021 legislative session virtually via Zoom to avoid transmission of COVID-19.

Carroll County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley testified at the House hearing in opposition to the legislation, arguing “this body has the ability to make marijuana legal and as long as you are choosing to keep it illegal, I don’t understand why you are making it harder and harder for us to prosecute. You have the ability to do one or the other, so pick one.” Last year, Riley testified against decriminalization increases with a similar argument.

The remaining opposition came from Scott Shellenberger from the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office and Republican Senator Robert Cassilly from Harford County. Each argued that one ounce is too great of a quantity to be considered personal use, with Shellenberger showing the legislature a photo of an ounce of cannabis to emphasize his point. Cassilly argued an ounce could produce too many “marijuana cigarettes” to be in an individual’s possession for anything other than distribution, despite the multitude of vessels used to consume cannabis—each burning varying amounts of flower or concentrate per use—and the existing four ounce monthly allotment for medical patients. 14 of the 16 states that have decriminalized cannabis have decriminalized possession of an ounce or less.

Both the House and Senate versions of the minimum threshold legislation will move onto another reading on the assembly floor where it may be subject to amendments. While it is still unclear whether legalization of cannabis for recreational use can occur in this unusual virtual legislative session, lawmakers could use this bill as a placeholder to further reduce criminal prosecution of cannabis until 2022. 

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