Montgomery Co. adds paraphenalia to decriminalization law

Councilmember Nancy Navarro speaks with State Sen. Rich Madaleno and  other elected officials and decriminalization advocates at a press conference on  TuesdayMontgomery County lawmakers on Tuesday said the county state’s attorney and top police official are on board with upping what’s decriminalized when it comes to having and using small amounts of marijuana.

Councilmember Nancy Navarro, with support from six other members of Council, introduced a resolution that directed county police to make the arrest of those who possess marijuana one of the department’s lowest priorities.

The resolution also states that effective May 12, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy directed his office not to prosecute first-time offenders for the possession of a small amount of marijuana, even if accompanied by paraphernalia.

The paraphernalia distinction is important because the state decriminalization law signed on April 14 omitted it.

That meant the possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana was decriminalized while the possession of paraphernalia used to smoke the drug remained a criminal offense.

“I think it was part of the surprise of getting the bill done was the fact that this piece did not come up in the conversation until after it was over,” said District 18 State Sen. Rich Madaleno during a Tuesday press conference in Rockville.

“I think we will resolve this issue very quickly next year because it doesn’t make sense,” Madaleno said. “If you’re also possessing the pipe, why try to put the person in the same jeopardy and legal consequences. So I think that will be resolved. I think that as the conversation was happening it just had not been brought up.”

The decriminalization law made possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana punishable by civil fines for the first two offenses for those 21 and over.

Maryland joined at least 24 other states that have decriminalized, legalized or allowed marijuana for medical use, though Gov. Martin O’Malley made clear he’s not yet in favor of full-on legalization.

Supporters of the decriminalization effort pointed to statistics that show African Americans go to jail at a higher rate for marijuana possession, despite usage levels that are the same as whites. The resolution also stated that “otherwise law-abiding residents could be saddled with a criminal record that makes it more difficult to subsequently obtain a job, housing, government benefits, student loans, college admission, and causes difficulties in many other areas of life.”

In 2013 there were 4,181 drug offenses in Montgomery County, 3,629 of which were for simple possession or use. According to a report from the ACLU of Maryland, black residents in Montgomery County were 3.2 times more likely to be arrested for simple marijuana possession than white residents.

In 2010, 18 percent of the county’s population was black, but 46 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the county were black.

“That’s a real serious issue that has a lot of consequences,” Navarro said. “We are a county that is very proud of leading the way in so many difficult arenas and challenging arenas, but right and just arenas and this is one of them.”

Neither McCarthy nor Police Chief Thomas Manger were at the press conference, but Navarro said both reviewed the resolution and contributed language to it.

“We believe very strongly in Montgomery County that it’s always about continuous improvement. I think our chief understands that and has been real supportive,” Navarro said.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Roger Berliner, Craig Rice, Cherri Branson, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer.

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