Many of us believe marijuana possession for personal use should be decriminalized — some believe marijuana should be legal, regulated, and taxed — but given current laws, the City of Takoma Park, my personal bailiwick, does not decide for itself. The federal government classifies marijuana as a banned “Schedule I” controlled substance. Takoma Park enforces federal and state laws, as it must, by making arrests, including for possession of small quantities of marijuana and of paraphernalia.
Our city is, regrettably, on the front lines of the ill-conceived War on Drugs.
Conviction for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and for related drug paraphernalia, has serious consequences. Conviction (or even just arrest) affects a person’s ability to get a job or student loan, the ability to function fully in society. We note, not incidentally, that enforcement, arrest, conviction, and incarceration heavily and disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities, in Montgomery County and just about everywhere else in the U.S. Consequences for everyone arrested for possession may be life-long and life-altering far out of proportion to the gravity of the crime… which isn’t even a crime according to certain states whose drug policies are more progressive than Maryland’s.
There have been efforts to change our state’s law. Most recently, Maryland Senators Bobby Zirkin’s and Allan Kittleman’s SB 297 would have reduced the maximum penalty for possession up to 10 grams of marijuana to a $100 civil fine. That level of possession is currently a criminal offense punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. The state senate passed the bill by a 30-16 vote, but it did not advance out of the House of Delegate’s Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Delegate Joseph F. Vallario, Jr.. The vice chair is Kathleen M. Dumais, a member of the Montgomery County’s house delegation.
Reportedly Senator Zirkin plans to try again in 2014, and I hope our District 20 representatives and the Montgomery County delegation will support his decriminalization bill and a bill in the House of Delegates. (I would also support legalization within a regulatory framework.)
The Home Front
I started writing this article in July after noting local arrest statistics, but held off posting in order to gather information and gain a more complete picture of the local situation. According to the Takoma Park Police Department’s published crime reports, the city made at least thirteen arrests for possession of marijuana and/or drug paraphernalia in the three months to mid-July alone. (I write “at least” because Police Chief Alan Goldberg told me that the department may not have reported juvenile arrests. According to Chief Goldberg, there were 42 citations for possession of marijuana in the first six months of 2013, but many were coupled with charges for other crimes.) I will list the 12 report records that I found:
- Unit blk. of Darwin Ave., on Sunday, July 14th at 3:00 p.m., a male 24, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia
- 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Sunday, July 14th at 2:31 p.m., a male 49, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- 7200 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Wednesday, July 10th at 10:24 a.m., a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- 7400 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Monday, May 27th at 4:27 a.m., a male 39, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Tuesday, May 21st at 9:47 pm, a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
- 1300 blk. of University Blvd., on Sunday, May 19th at 12:40 am, a male 41 and a female 27, were arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
- 6900 blk. of New Hampshire Ave., on Saturday, May 18th at 4:24 pm, a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- 7700 blk. of Maple Ave., on Thursday, May 16th at 1:38 a.m., a female 21, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- Intersection of New Hampshire Ave., and Larch Ave., on Wednesday, May 15th at 11:32 p.m., a male 23, was arrested for possession of marijuana.
- Intersection of Flower Ave. and Garland Ave., on Thursday, May 2nd at 2:00 pm, a male 30, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia
- 1100 blk. of University Blvd., on Monday, April 29th at 6:30 pm, a male 42, was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia.
- 600 blk. of Boston Ave., on Friday, April 26th at 11:54 am, a male 18, was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
(I have not included records that additionally cite other offenses, records such as “6400 blk. of 5th Ave., on Wednesday, July 10th at 11:21 a.m., male 36, was arrested for possession of cocaine, drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana, and violation of protective order.” And by the way, during that same period we have made at least seven arrests for “having an open alcoholic container in public” or “drinking alcohol in public,” not associated with any other charges such as disorderly conduct or theft, but that’s matter for a different article.)
The city has discussed a “deprioritization” policy on marijuana enforcement although there’s nothing in writing in city code or police orders.
Could Takoma Park enact policy with teeth, a non-enforcement rule, regarding possession of small amounts of marijuana and of associated paraphernalia? No, simply. The city does have the policy that it will not assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, but I do not believe that model could extend to marijuana possession.
Maryland Law, Racial Disparities, and Public Opinion
According to Maryland law, possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana, deemed for personal use, is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Possession of 10-50 grams is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Possession of paraphernalia is a misdemeanor carrying the same penalty. It is not uncommon for a prosecutor to drop a case if an arrested individual agrees to do community service. As reported in the Baltimore Sun, “The General Assembly changed the marijuana laws last year in an attempt to soften the blow of those arrests. In addition to lesser sentences for having less than 10 grams, a law that came into force Jan. 1 this year instructs police to charge possession by citation, which can be done on the street. The measure was designed to keep people out of jail before court dates.” A lawyer-published page does a fair job of explaining the citation situation. It’s only a matter of time before a bill like 2013’s SB 297, or outright legalization, passes. In the mean time —
“Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to new federal data,” reports the New York Times, citing a recent ACLU study. According to the ACLU,
“The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.”
I don’t know whether Takoma Park arrests show the same disparity — Councilmember Terry Seamens has asked our police department for data — but our city surely pays the same unjustified social and financial costs.
I hate our our participation in this whole mess, as do many, if not most, Takoma Park residents. It’s a waste of money; it makes none of us safer. Knowing Takoma Park, it’s likely that local opinion regarding legalization far exceeds bare-majority national support. According to study findings released by Pew Research on April 3, 2013,
“About half (52%) of adults today support legalizing the use of marijuana, up from 41% in 2010. Since then, support for legalization has increased among all demographic and political groups.”
Takoma Park Options
A Takoma Park non-enforcement ordinance would be ill-advised. Maryland municipalities may not nullify provisions of the Maryland constitution and laws. Regardless, our police officers have sworn to uphold the state constitution and laws, and a court could overturn our law. It would be wasteful to enact an unconstitutional law and damaging to pursue a city law that would pit the council against the city administration.
Police have discretion in enforcement of laws. We recognize that officers legitimately apply judgment, in light of circumstances, drawing on their experience and management guidance, in their responses to the wide variety situations they encounter. Perhaps our police department could revise orders to allow for greater on-the-streets enforcement discretion, or to delineate don’t-investigate/don’t-enforce situations. But council imposition of such a directive would undercut police management’s authority, and I will not pursue it.
I titled this article “Part 1.” I expect to post a Part 2, describing steps toward a decrease in the number of Takoma Park citations and arrest, although not soon. I believe we will see progress, through work on a larger scale to assist allies outside our city borders, within the next couple of years.
A change in state law is the most promising answer, the best answer short of a change in federal policy. Should a responsive bill be introduced in the Maryland Senate or House of Delegates, I will join with my city-council colleagues (all of them, I’d hope) to support it. A state initiative could again be blocked in the 2014 legislative session, but 2014 is an election year, with a June primary and a November general election.
In 2015, in the first session of a new state legislature elected I would hope and expect we’ll see progress, steps to decriminalized small quantities of marijuana (or legalize it) in Maryland.