In a time of limited government resources, police and prosecutors must direct their energies where they can accomplish the most with the least.
That’s why the recent strategy by the Montgomery County Police Department and the county’s State’s Attorney’s Office to turn its attention away from marijuana users who possess small amounts of pot and instead target dealers makes the most sense.
This shift in policy was reported last week by The Gazette’s Jeremy Arias.
Lt. Stephen D’Ovidio told Arias that marijuana remains the most prevalent and widely available illegal drug in Montgomery County.
D’Ovidio is the deputy commander of the police department’s Special Investigations Division overseeing the Drug Enforcement Section. He said that until federal and state laws change, the focus of police won’t change. But he added: “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.”
It’s common sense. And it reflects changing attitudes in many communities.
Said State’s Attorney John McCarthy, the county’s top prosecutor: “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.”
Some will argue this presents a mixed message, particularly to young people. They are bombarded with any number of public service announcements encouraging them to stay away from marijuana and other drugs, and yet we also encourage our police officers to look the other way when an adult lights up a joint. The message may be mixed, but we live in a mixed-message world. Fourteen states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The District of Columbia is preparing to license marijuana dispensaries for medical use.
Maryland has not decriminalized marijuana, but it has made criminal prosecutions extremely difficult for individuals who can prove they need the effects of cannabis to counteract a number of illnesses. And legislators took another common-sense step in the last session of the state legislature. Under old law, a marijuana defendant faced a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Defendants who face more than 90 days in jail can demand a jury trial. With so many marijuana prosecutions in the courts, defendants could easily brake the wheels of justice.
“Effectively, these [minor] marijuana cases brought the court system in Baltimore city to its knees,” McCarthy said.
The new law — proposed by Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Dist. 46) of Baltimore and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park — reduces the maximum penalty to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine for anyone convicted of possessing 10 grams of marijuana. At the same time, the legislature also passed another law that has an effect on marijuana prosecutions. Anyone charged with certain non-violent offenses, including marijuana possession, can receive a citation, instead of being cuffed and hauled off to the pokey. That bill was proposed by Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Dist. 16) of Bethesda.
Frosh, who chairs the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee, said pot possession was a secondary consideration as lawmakers debated the bill.
“The fact that there was concensus on this bill reflected the fact that opinions are changing and the opinions of law enforcement officers are changing on marijuana enforcement,” Frosh said.
Common sense by the police and the legislature, and on an important issue facing our communities, gives one hope.