A whole passel of laws, hundreds of them, kicked in yesterday in Maryland. A lot of them come under the general headings of health and criminal justice. Here’s a brief look at a few bills that became law Oct. 1.
As of yesterday, the minimum age for buying tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars, electronic smoking devices and their related paraphernalia is now 21, up from 18. The exception to the law is active-duty military members, who can be sold these products at 18. Retailers are required to display signs announcing the new law and are subject to inspection and civil fines if the prohibitions are violated.
Maryland is the 18th state to increase the minimum age for tobacco sales to 21, and we think it’s a great idea. The Maryland Department of Health has been behind this for more than a year, and the situation became more critical this summer and fall as this state and 37 others have been dealing with an outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses. There have been 20 such cases in Maryland reported as of last week. In addition to providing educational materials, MDH is surveying retailers to seek input on what additional resources they need to assist them with the rapidly changing landscape for smokers and vapers.
“We want to help tobacco retailers comply with the new law,” said MDH Secretary Robert R. Neall. “They play a critical role in creating a healthier Maryland by keeping tobacco products out of the hands of Maryland youth.”
According to the state health department, approximately 865,000 Marylanders use tobacco and electronic smoking devices, and many of them reported starting before age 21. This new law aims to protect over a quarter of a million residents between ages 18 to 20 from developing a nicotine addiction.
“We discourage youth from using all tobacco products, including electronic smoking devices,” said Dawn Berkowitz, director of MDH’s Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control. “Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical. The human brain is developing until about 25 to 26 years old and introducing nicotine to your brain while it is still developing can have permanent negative consequences.”
Another big passage of legislation is the outlawing of “bump stocks” for weapons not already owned before a year ago. As of yesterday, the transportation, possession, sale, manufacture, receipt or purchase of “rapid-fire trigger activators” that were not owned prior to Oct. 1, 2018, is prohibited. These devices increase the rate at which ammunition is discharged from a firearm. Penalties include a maximum fine of $5,000 and/or three years imprisonment.
In response to the ongoing problem of cyberbullying, a new law broadens what constitutes electronic harassment in Maryland and toughens the penalties against it. A person who uses electronic harassment with the intent of inducing a minor to commit suicide can now be imprisoned for up to 10 years and/or fined up to $10,000. It builds off the original Grace’s Law, named after Grace McComas, a teenager who committed suicide in 2012 after “repeated and vicious harassment online by a neighbor,” according to a legislative analysis.
And now, it will be illegal not just to commit hate crimes, but to threaten them as well. Threats will be assessed the same misdemeanor penalty of a maximum of three years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. Hate crimes rose nationwide by 17%, and in Maryland by 35%, from 2016 to 2017, according to the FBI.
Computer-generated images that are indistinguishable from identifiable children younger than 16, and engaged in sexual conduct, will now qualify as child pornography under a new law. Film, photo, video and “other visual representations” currently qualify under that designation, but drawings, cartoons, sculptures and paintings do not. Penalties are up to 10 years in prison and $10,000.
And here’s an interesting one: Betting, wagering and gambling has been decriminalized in Maryland. The penalty for such offenses had been imprisonment for up to a year or a fine of up to $1,000. Now, gambling is a civil offense with no possible jail time. Running illegal gambling operations will remain a misdemeanor with possible jail time under the new law. It’s good for the state to be less hypocritical on the subject. After all, Maryland has six casinos and has gladly taken money from its citizens through a state lottery since 1973. Perhaps this will help clear the way for open sports betting at the casinos.