A month after state law lessened the penalties for small amounts of marijuana, Montgomery County is working out the kinks.
The law, which took effect Oct. 1, reduces the penalty for possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana to a civil citation and maximum $100 fine. Possession of 10 grams or more is still a misdemeanor that could result in up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. In contrast, possession of marijuana paraphernalia – anything used to make or consume it – could still carry a $500 fine under the law or jail time for multiple offenses.
“For whatever reason we didn’t get that piece of it quite right. I don’t think anybody believes someone should go to jail for possession of paraphernalia when (they don’t for) the possession of the substance,” said State Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County), who serves on the judiciary committee and is the democratic candidate for Maryland attorney general.
If everything goes as planned, Frosh expects the next legislative session to fix the discrepancy. In the meantime, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office and the police have coordinated their enforcement of the law.
“We have asked our law enforcement partners on the streets of our county to refrain from criminally charging paraphernalia cases as we would not go forward with the charge generally speaking,” State’s Attorney’s office spokesperson Ramon Korionoff wrote in an email.
Korionoff said so far there have been no cases in which the police tried to go forward with only a paraphernalia charge that does not involve possession of the drug itself or other incriminating factors; if a police officer notices weapons, other drugs, heavy amounts of drugs, or indications of drug dealing in addition to paraphernalia, he said, the officer could convince the state’s attorney to pursue a criminal charge.
The office does not track the number of cases regarding marijuana possession and paraphernalia from month to month.
The Montgomery County Police Department also did not have month-by-month marijuana statistics immediately available, but said the department has trained officers to use the civil citation in most cases.
Frosh said one of the arguments for decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana is that it can free up time and resources for more serious cases. According to the ACLU of Maryland, there were more than 23,000 marijuana-related arrests in Maryland in 2010.
“That’s a lot of work for our judicial system for the admin of justice and it’s very expensive. It’s time-consuming and it ruins the lives of the people who are arrested and charged,” he said.
MCPD spokesperson Lt. Charles Carafano said it’s too early to see how much of a difference the decriminalization has made in the community, but officers always give more serious crimes precedence.
“Many times, simple possession charges have been the result of basic and good police work that result in smaller amounts of drugs or paraphernalia being recovered from a person involved in or stopped for other offenses,” he wrote in an email.
In preparation for the law, the department also trained officers to distinguish between less than and more than 10 grams of marijuana, Carafano said. If an officer needs to weigh the substance to confirm, every station has a triple beam or electronic scale.
Frosh said although the decriminalization had some opposition, he does not see the General Assembly changing its mind.
“The interesting thing about the legislation is that it had bipartisan support and I think it’s there to stay in some form or another,” he said.