By Tim Pratt
As new laws go into effect around the state this week, recreational marijuana users will have a bit less to worry about.
Come Wednesday, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana will no longer be a criminal offense in Maryland.
Proponents of marijuana legalization call the decriminalization a good first step, though they worry about potential loopholes in the law. Possession of paraphernalia, for example, is still a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
But some law enforcement officials, including Anne Arundel State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess and her opponent in the coming election, Wes Adams, worry about the potential impact.
Decriminalization could lead to more impaired drivers, Leitess said, and more children being exposed to the drug. Adams worries about the long-term health effects marijuana users will experience.
Meanwhile, county police are warning people that possession of small amounts of marijuana will still be illegal, though it will be a civil offense and not result in jail time.
"Marijuana is not legal, regardless of what this law is," said county police spokesman Lt. T.J. Smith.
Under the new law, first-time offenders can receive a fine of up to $100. Second-time offenders can receive a fine of up to $250. A third or subsequent offense is punishable by fine of up to $500 and requires attendance in a drug education program and referral to a substance abuse evaluation.
For those under 21, the penalty for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana could include suspension of their driver's license and participation in a supervised work program. Additionally, they would be required to attend a drug education program and referred for a substance abuse assessment.
People who possess more than 10 grams of marijuana, or who possess it with intent to distribute, can still be charged criminally.
Under current law, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is a criminal offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, though prosecutors typically recommend some sort of diversion program, like drug treatment, for first-time offenders.
In 2013, District Court in Anne Arundel County handled 1,033 cases for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana.
County police officers won't carry scales to weigh marijuana found on suspects, Smith said, but they have been trained to learn what 10 grams looks like. Smith described it as a "healthy handful."
The State's Attorney's Office also has taught officers about the new law.
"We haven't had a crime strategy dedicated to small amounts of marijuana, so this won't affect how we go about policing," Smith said.
Officers will now issue citations when they find subjects in possession of small amounts of marijuana when in the past it would result in an arrest.
Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst for Washington, D.C.,-based Marijuana Policy Project, said she hopes the new law will reduce the discrepancy between the numbers of African-Americans and Caucasians charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana. She said it's a 3-to-1 ratio -- and hopes police won't use the paraphernalia "loophole" to continue arresting African-Americans at a higher rate.
The Marijuana Policy Project plans to lobby state legislators before next year's session for marijuana legalization and to fix that loophole, Yeung said. The goal, she said, is for Maryland to implement laws similar to those in Colorado and Washington state, which have legalized possession of marijuana and allowed dispensaries to sell it to the public.
Leitess said she wishes Maryland lawmakers would have taken time to study the impacts of the laws in Colorado and Washington before decriminalizing marijuana here.
"I was hoping that we would see what Washington and Colorado's issues were and address those issues before rushing into it," Leitess said.
Adams said many first-time offenders with small amounts of marijuana receive probation before judgement, so it doesn't stay on their permanent record. He worries the decriminalization will put the state on a "slippery slope" to legalization, which he also opposes.
"I understand the social issues of it and I clearly undesrtand the argument about where our resources could be better well spent. It is obviously a cutting edge issue, but that's where I stand on it."
(c)2014 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)