New Maryland Marijuana Law Decriminalizes, Not Legalizes

On October 1, 2014 new laws regarding the drug marijuana took effect in Maryland. Commonly referred to as “decriminalization,” the new law does NOT actually make marijuana legal in the state. Nevertheless, the new law does relax penalties. The biggest change is that possession of certain amounts of marijuana is now merely a citation, more akin to a traffic ticket than a criminal charge. Maryland is part of a growing trend nationwide among several states to relax strict laws related to marijuana. The changes are attributable to a number of reasons, including changes in public opinion, sentiment that marijuana laws are enforced disproportionately, and evolving views on the harmfulness of the drug.

Ten Grams or Less

The most significant change to the law is that 10 grams or less of marijuana is now a civil offense rather than a criminal misdemeanor. For a first time offense, the civil fine is $100. For a second offense, the fine is $250. For a third or more offense, the fine rises to $500 and the court must refer the individual to a drug education program and may order substance abuse treatment at its discretion. For persons under 21 years of age, the fines are the same, but the court must order the individual to a drug education program upon only the first offense.

The old law, by contrast, punished possession of marijuana with up to 1 year imprisonment and a $1,000 fine, with the exception of marijuana for medical use. Furthermore, marijuana possession, regardless of amount, was a misdemeanor offense that created criminal liability, including the potential for a criminal record.

Public Record

Like traffic violations, marijuana citations involving 10 grams or less are pre-payable. Unless the individual is cited for the third or more time, or the individual is under age 21, no court appearance is required. Otherwise, the cited individual may elect to simply pay the fine. However, if a court appearance is required, or the individual elects to challenge the citation in court, the law bars that record from public inspection, including from appearing online at the website of the Maryland Judiciary.

As a matter of policy, this further shields the individual from the stigma of marijuana as a criminal matter. It also eliminates the dilemma of whether to challenge a citation in court for fear of creating a public record.

A Changing Landscape

Even as marijuana gains growing tolerance across the country, it should be emphasized again that Maryland’s law does NOT legalize the drug. It is still unlawful to possess even small amounts of marijuana, and over 10 grams is still punishable as a misdemeanor. Large amounts of marijuana can result in stiff penalties related to dealing and distribution. It remains illegal to operate a motor vehicle under the influence. Marijuana is still considered a controlled substance in the state.

Furthermore, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. In circumstances where federal authorities have appropriate jurisdiction – for example, at airport security lines – the Maryland law will not trump the federal law’s prohibition. An individual may not rely on being in Maryland alone if a federal law is broken. Likewise, Maryland residency will not protect the individual from potential criminal prosecution in other states or jurisdictions.

The idea behind the change in the law is to not make a common criminal out of individuals that use and possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. It is meant also to eliminate the creation of criminal records for the offense, which can create obstacles to future endeavors such as one’s employment prospects.

Finally, police officers must have probable cause to issue a citation for marijuana. If you believe you were issued a citation in error, or if it is your third or more offense and you are facing the possibility of being ordered to a drug treatment program, you may wish to obtain legal counsel to represent you to fight for your rights in court.

Fred Antenberg is an attorney in Columbia, Maryland who handles criminal law matters in Howard County, Maryland, and in surrounding counties. On this, call Fred at 410-730-4404 for a free initial consultation.