Montgomery County Council urges state to decriminalize drug paraphernalia -- Gazette.Net


The Montgomery County Council is calling on the General Assembly to close a loophole in the state’s new marijuana decriminalization law, and lawmakers say the state is likely to take up the effort.

The council asked the legislature Tuesday to include marijuana paraphernalia under the same law that lowered penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In April, the General Assembly passed a law that allowed people 21 and older who are caught with up to 10 grams of marijuana — about one-third of an ounce — to pay a $100 civil fine rather than be charged with a criminal offense. The law takes effect Oct. 1.

But in the flurry of debate over the idea of decriminalization, no one thought of what to do about paraphernalia, said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

It was an oversight rather than a conscious decision by lawmakers, simply a case of “legislative omission,” he said.

The council wants the state to make possession of paraphernalia by an adult a civil offense with a penalty no more severe than for the marijuana itself, and for law enforcement in the county to follow suit.

“The sense of the Council is that possession of small amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia by adults should be among the County’s lowest law enforcement priorities,” a council resolution said.

The failure to decriminalize paraphernalia means that a person could get in more trouble for having items used to consume marijuana than for having the drug itself, it said.

The resolution also referred to an American Civil Liberties Union report that said black residents in Montgomery County are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents.

In 2010, blacks made up 18 percent of the county’s population but 46 percent of arrests for marijuana possession, the resolution said.

Everyone believes that children using alcohol or other drugs is unacceptable, Councilwoman Nancy Navarro said.

But the county has a history of highlighting areas that legislators believe need to be addressed, and the disparity in marijuana arrests among adults and the paraphernalia loophole are such areas, said Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring.

Navarro sponsored the resolution, along with Council President Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, Councilwomen Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) of Garrett Park and Cherri Branson (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, and Councilmen Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park and Hans Riemer (D-At Large) of Takoma Park.

It’s more important to find the root causes of why people feel the need to use substances than to arrest them for possessing them, Branson said Tuesday.

“We serve our public best when we get to where their pain is,” she said.

State lawmakers said they believe the issue will be addressed soon.

The General Assembly passed a good law but it wasn’t perfect, and they need to make changes so the law achieves what was intended, said Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Dist. 19) of Aspen Hill.

Hopefully the money spent on incarceration, trials and other expenses of the current system can be put into programs for education and awareness, she said.

State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington said the paraphernalia issue will be at the top of the agenda for the next session, which starts in January.

Raskin said he’s hopeful that the issue can be dealt with in the next session.

The paraphernalia issue should have been dealt with at the same time as the marijuana issue, Raskin said, and he’s glad the council is taking an active role in the issue.

“Representative democracy is a work in progress and not a work of perfection,” he said.