Although marijuana remains a top priority in Montgomery County narcotics investigations, evolving social views — and a pair of new state laws — are leading public safety officials to rethink how they handle casual users of the drug.
In effect, police are moving toward an enforcement strategy that continues to consider marijuana possession a crime, but sees possession of small amounts of the drug as a less serious offense than it now is, officials said.
That move is being made to reduce the backlog of marijuana-based court cases and to conform with two new laws that decrease the criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug.
“It is still the most prevalent and widely available illegal drug in Montgomery County by far, and we’re going to keep targeting it as such until the law is changed,” said Lt. Stephen D’Ovidio, deputy commander of the department’s Special Investigations Division overseeing the Drug Enforcement Section. “We’re going after the dealers and suppliers; we’re not targeting the users.”
County State’s Attorney John McCarthy described a similar scenario in which officials will continue targeting dealers while de-emphasizing the prosecution of small-time users.
“We’re not talking about people who are entrepreneurs. We’re not talking about people who are involved in the sale or distribution or manufacturing through grow operations. We are talking about [minor] possession of marijuana with these laws,” McCarthy said.
“It’s part of the public conversation about what is intelligent criminal justice policy in terms of making us a safer community and dealing with the issue of marijuana use; what makes the most sense for us as a community? It’s clear that we are in a process here in Maryland, and around the country, of re-examining that question.”
Legislators act to reduce penalties
Currently, people found in possession of marijuana in any amount face a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, the law also dictates anyone facing more than 90 days in jail can demand a jury trial, a caveat that became a problem when nearly every one of the 6,000 people arrested for possession of marijuana in Baltimore city last year requested a jury trial, McCarthy said.
“Effectively these [minor] marijuana cases brought the court system in Baltimore city to its knees,” he said. “... Very few of these people, for simple possession, ever even go to jail, so to allow the criminal justice system to be held hostage by a law and a penalty that was never utilized didn’t make sense.”
As a result, Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Dist. 46) of Baltimore and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park introduced legislation in the General Assembly this year that reduces the maximum penalty for people caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine.
At the same time, Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda introduced a bill mandating people charged with certain, nonviolent criminal offenses — including marijuana possession — be charged with a citation instead of holding offenders in jail, which incurs potentially high costs from the justice system for housing and public defender representation.
The topic of marijuana “was a subsidiary consideration to the primary problem that we were trying to solve, but it became an important point to the bill,” Frosh said. “The fact that there was consensus on this bill reflected the fact that opinions are changing and the opinions of law enforcement officers are changing on marijuana enforcement.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed both bills into law. Clippinger’s and Raskin’s bill takes effect Oct. 1, while Frosh’s bill takes effect Jan. 2 — deadlines marijuana supporters in the area say could move the state a step closer to decriminalization of the drug.
Supporters take heart
Fourteen states have decriminalized the possession of marijuana, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., have some legal framework to provide medicinal marijuana to qualified patients, St. Pierre added.
Although Maryland has not decriminalized the drug, the shifting perspective on marijuana soon will force police organizations to re-examine their priorities when the new laws take effect, St. Pierre said.
“It ultimately is a half measure between prohibition and full decriminalization,” he said of the laws passed by the assembly this session. “As a consumer, I would willingly take the Hobson’s choice and have the contraband destroyed and be let off with a fine rather than being dragged violently into the criminal justice system.”
Regardless of state politics, the issue of the legalization of marijuana remains a matter of federal law, Frosh and Raskin said.
Even in states such as California, where marijuana is decriminalized and medicinal dispensaries are in place, state-sanctioned growers still are subject to federal raids, Frosh said.
“It’s still a federal crime,” Frosh said. “And it doesn’t look like there is a federal consensus at this point.”
Raskin agreed with Frosh, but added state laws such as those passed this year are important steps toward a more reasonable marijuana policy.
“I don’t think that the state should be in the business of ruining people’s lives because they either need to use marijuana as the result of a medical illness or because they have done what tens of millions of Americans, including several presidents, have done ...” he said.
Opposition remainsNot everyone agrees the new laws are a positive step.
Joyce Nalepka of Silver Spring — a self-described “anti-drug addict” — considers marijuana to be in much the same category as heroin and cocaine.
“You can’t separate them because once you start you’re very likely to move on to other drugs,” Nalepka said. “On top of that it is damaging our children immeasurably. ... Marijuana is not just a harmless drug; it is damaging to every major system and organ in the body.”
A former president of the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth and founder of the Drug Free Kids: America's Challenge anti-drug lobbying group, Nalepka has campaigned for stricter drug penalties in Maryland and across the nation since the 1970s. She expressed disappointment laws such as those sponsored by Raskin and Frosh are passing in Maryland.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said. “The community and parents have got to step up to the plate.”
Finding common ground
Meanwhile, public safety officials, such as D’Ovidio, remain on the sidelines of the debate, refusing to allow political sympathies to shape enforcement of the law.
“I would say that, until the state of Maryland or the federal government decides to change the law and allow people to start doing it ... we’re not going to change our focus at all,” he said. “That said, we don’t have the personnel volume to go after all the users in Montgomery County. We don’t drive around at night looking for people smoking dope in their cars; we focus on the dealers.”
Even the most forgiving drug laws continue to see large-scale dealers of any illegal narcotic, marijuana or otherwise, as serious offenders, he said.