Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Smoke 'em if Ya Got 'em!

from The Dagger
The state’s new marijuana decriminalization laws take effect Wednesday, and Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies will have to use their judgment in deciding whether an amount of suspected substance found on an individual might exceed the weight considered a civil offense under the legislation.

Under the law, passed by the Maryland General Assembly and signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley earlier this year, amounts of marijuana under 10 grams will no longer draw a criminal penalty. Instead, first-time offenders will pay a $100 fine, with repeat offenders facing fines of $250 and $500, as well as the possibility of being ordered into an educational program.

But the law does not change penalties for drug paraphernalia or marijuana trafficking; putting pot into a pipe or selling it remains a criminal offense. Adding to the uncertainty around the law, Harford County Sheriff’s Deputies and their counterparts in several other local jurisdictions will have to use their discretion to determine whether an amount of marijuana seized from a person weighs 10 grams or more–official weights will be determined only at precincts, according to agency spokeswoman Cristie Kahler.

“The feasibility to conduct road-side weighing was not practical,” Kahler said in an e-mail to The Dagger. “Deputies will use their training and experience to make a good faith estimate, on scene, before taking the marijuana to the precinct to weigh. This seems to be the general movement from several surrounding jurisdictions.”

The agency policy, which was reviewed at a command staff meeting Monday, was developed in consultation with Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly and through “work sessions” at the state level, Kahler said.

“In an effort to develop this policy, agency members spent countless hours attending work sessions around the state to better understand the implications of the new law and create polices to outline how law enforcement officers would uphold the law,” she said. “Part of that process did include consultation with our Harford County State’s Attorney. Discussions have been held surrounding all aspects of the law from the standpoint of Patrol, Evidence Collection, and the Harford County Narcotics Taskforce.”

Individuals suspected of possessing more than 10 grams can be arrested pending a weigh-in at a Sheriff’s Office precinct, Cassilly said, comparing such action to a DUI suspect being arrested until chemical breath tests are completed. It was not immediately clear how many deputies would be trained in weighing marijuana; Sheriff Jesse Bane declined a phone interview Tuesday in lieu of an in-person meeting with The Dagger later this week.

Kahler added that the new policy would be reviewed at “roll call training” for deputies. That training will include how to identify 10 grams of marijuana, as a supplement the drug recognition training all deputies receive as recruits.

In the months leading up to the new law, both Sheriff Jesse Bane and Cassilly said the law as written creates a variety of potential problems for both deputies on patrol and prosecutors in the court room.

In an interview with The Dagger in May and at several other forums at the time, including a county council meeting, Bane expressed opposition to the change and called marijuana legalization a matter of public health.

“I keep emphasizing this, that the drug issue is a public health issue…and that makes it the number one problem in the county, in my opinion,” he said. “The THC substance is not a substance that is supposed to be in the brains of our children.”

In a June interview, Cassilly criticized the law as written, calling it a “godawful mess,” and said that Harford’s judges had begun handling cases which would fall under the new law in different ways.

“We’ve got judges that are basically saying this new law is coming,” he said at the time. “If you charge someone now, it may not come to trial until after the new law is in effect.”

“I’ve got nine judges, I’ve got judges looking at it differently. Some say the law is going to be different in five months, some go by what the law is now.”

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