Decriminalization in Maryland! Why This Is Cool but Not That Cool!

Senate Bill 364, the bill that decriminalizes possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana in Maryland was officially signed by Governor Martin O’Malley on April 14, 2014.

Great! Right?

Right! Kind of.

First, let’s check out the specifics of this bad boy.

Now to be clear, this is decriminalization, not legalization. Somehow there are folks out there who still cannot quite grasp the difference between these two concepts. It is not legal to walk around with a quarter of dank on your person. The difference (mind you this will take effect October 1st, 2014) is that now when you’re caught, rather than being charged with a criminal offense, facing the possibility of jail time, and HAVING THIS GO ON YOUR PERMANENT RECORD, you’ll be slipped a civil citation.

If it’s your first offense and you’re over the age of 21, you’ll be fined a Benjamin at max.

The second time you get busted with dat loud? (Am I cool, yet?) The fine will rise to $250.

And if you’re just a dumb motherfucker or totally reckless and get caught a third time, you’re looking at $500 fine, not to mention you’ll then be required to show up at court and they might even force you into a drug treatment program.

Now, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 20, you’ll still be fined and you’ll have to go to court even for a first offense, where the judge could refer you to drug education classes and/or a treatment program.

If you’re under 18 (THEN YOU SHOULDN’T BE SMOKING WEED ANYWAY) you’ll still go through the same juvenile court procedures as before, which in most cases means going to court and being referred to drug education classes. (But, hey you won’t be hauled off in handcuffs! That’s something, right??)

So that’s all in all an improvement for the Maryland marijuana user. But what about for the state as a whole? Let’s check out the financial aspect first. (Because M.O.E., am I right?!)

Lawmakers are projecting a significant decrease in general fund revenues and a slight decrease in general fund expenditures. Why you ask? Well, because those fines Mary-juana users (Get it like Maryland and marijuana mixed together?! GET IT?!) are paying are now going to be redirected straight to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The guys who fund and approve those drug treatment and education programs.) The slight expenditure decrease is due to the bill’s shift from a criminal penalty to a civil offense. (Fewer people in the courts, jails, etc.)

There will be a $127,700 general fund expenditure increase in Fiscal Year 2015 to accommodate an update to the Maryland Judiciary’s Criminal Justice Information System so that it complies with the bill’s shielding (marijuana citations will not be publicly accessible) and penalty remittance provisions, but that’s a figurative drop-in-the-pan for the estimated FY 2015 general fund budget of just under $16 billion.

Realistically, the long-term fiscal benefits from the bill will be minimal at best, but that’s better than nothing. Now, if this were a bill to legalize and regulate, then we’d see some major dough coming back to the state. More on that later.

What about the racial bias associated with enforcing marijuana laws that everyone’s been talking about? Well, that’s real. Especially in the Old Line State. In November, 2013, the ACLU of Maryland released a report detailing Maryland’s marijuana arrest rates between 2001 and 2010. That report showed that police arrest Blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than Whites in every county in the State.

Every county.

Yes, while Blacks make up approximately 30% of the State’s population, they account for 58% of marijuana possession arrests. So while many may be inclined to turn a blind eye to this facet of the issue, it’s a legitimate problem. The elimination of such arrests that comes with the territory of this bill will perhaps be the greatest service said bill provides. (Which is why the Legislative Black Caucus fought so hard to get SB-364 through, and why if they didn’t it would have almost certainly died in the House.)

Then of course, the public safety aspect. Arresting users for marijuana possession does little to nothing to improve public safety. (And I debated whether to include “little to.”) But as with any illegitimate business enterprise, the black market sale of the product certainly comes with public safety risks. People make a lot of money off of selling weed, and when there is a lot of money involved without any authoritative regulation, somewhere along the line it’s going to get dangerous.

The hope is with this bill, police will be able to focus their efforts on greater threats to the public. If a cop isn’t wasting time booking some glassy-eyed stoner, he or she is therefore able to spend that time searching for the real criminals.

So all that sounds good, not perfect, but a step in the right direction. And that’s what SB-364 is, really. No one expects this to be the long-term system and no one should. Full-scale legalization is inevitable and an all-around better alternative. But it takes baby steps to get there. It’s a lot harder to convince stubborn lawmakers to go straight from locking up 2 Chainz to deeming marijuana a legal substance without anything in between.

But the great thing about Democracy is that sometimes, it still actually works. Public opinion has a way of creeping its way up to lawmakers, even if it does take a few years. Two states (Colorado and Washington… don’t forget about Washington) have already legalized it, and various polls taken within the last year illustrate that this is what the majority of Americans want.

Like this one. And this one. And this one.

It will happen eventually, and it should. Legalization comes through in the places where decriminalization falls short.

That minimal fiscal bump that decriminalization provides? That would be an exponential leap under legalization. Just how much of a leap can be tricky to forecast, as Colorado is finding out. But what’s not tricky is that regardless of forecasts, that sticky green brings in some serious… um, green.

In the month of February, Colorado picked up over $1.8 million in sales tax (10% on recreational marijuana in addition to standard Colorado 2.9% sales tax) on recreational marijuana alone. That doesn’t even include the $1.02 million raked in from sales tax on medical marijuana, (just the 2.9%, don’t worry) or the $339,615 in excise tax collected from marijuana cultivators.

Add it all up and those Colorado folks are looking at over $3.1 million in revenue for one month. And they’re doing this while simultaneously saving on incarcerations, eliminating those racially biased arrests,  allowing thousands of ill patients access to their medicinal cannabis, and yes, their police officers get to focus on more serious issues.

And no, it’s not a crime-ridden wasteland now. In fact, the city and county of Denver experienced a 12.9% drop in total crime if you compare January-February of 2013 to January-February of 2014.

I certainly won’t attribute that drop to legalization, but the point is, legal weed (shocker) does not look like it leads to an uptick in crime.

Back to Maryland, where is that money going to now? It’s going to illegitimate dealers. That sucks. For everyone. (Except the dealers, but fuck them.)

Right now if you want to get some tree, you probably either go to that creepy guy in your neighborhood who always wants you to hang out when you buy from him, or maybe you journey into a bad area that’s notorious for selling drugs.

Look, I’ve bought weed in the projects before and let me tell you it fucking sucks. I don’t want to feel like I’m in an episode of The Wire just so I can get some herb. Not only that, dealers usually don’t tell you the strain, potency, or chemical makeup of the weed you’re buying from them. (If they do, set me up with THAT GUY.) If there were a legitimate business that you could purchase cannabis from in Maryland, I think I speak for the large majority of marijuana users when I say I would purchase from said business 10 times out of 10, regardless of price. I mean hell, even if it were marked way up, it would be worth it to avoid doing business with creepy neighborhood drug dealers and/or those who reside in a locale prone to violent crime.

And you know what else that reputable business would do? Check identification and NOT SELL TO FUCKING KIDS. No dealer out there cards his or her customers like a liquor store would do. Thus, it’s much easier to get weed than it is to get alcohol for a teenager, take my word for it.

There lies one of the biggest flaws in decriminalization. It leaves the sale in the hands of these black market dealers, depriving the state of millions in tax revenue, and selling uninspected marijuana to whoever the fuck wants it, up to and including children.

But for all that decriminalization doesn’t address, it’s damn sure better than throwing otherwise law-abiding citizens in jail for smoking a little pot. It’s the first step, one that needed to be made, and once that next step is taken, Maryland will finally rid itself of marijuana prohibition and reap all the benefits of legalization.