Marylanders will decide on the ballot whether to legalize marijuana through a constitutional provision, in an initiative with broad societal implications. Those in law enforcement and public health would be at the forefront of instituting a change, and they weighed in on the question.
Josh McCauley, a lieutenant at the Washington County Sherriff’s Office, says there has been a gray area regarding marijuana the last several years, making the job of law enforcement more difficult.
“In certain circumstances, it’s legal. In certain circumstances, it’s not,” said the law enforcement veteran of 18 years.
Under current state law, possession of 10 grams or more of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both, while possession of less than 10 grams is a civil offense, punishable by a fine of up to $100 for a first offense. The state has also had a medical cannabis program in place since 2014.
“It becomes confusing for the public and it’s confusing for law enforcement,” McCauley said. He said the sheriff’s office did not have a strong opinion for or against legalization.
What would the ballot question change?
The drug remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substance Act, but is permitted for adult recreational use in 18 other states and the District of Columbia.
The ballot question would add a new article to the Maryland constitution. Maryland’s legislature passed companion legislation on marijuana earlier this year that takes effect should the ballot question be approved by the state’s voters.
Under the law, the term “marijuana” is repealed and replaced by “cannabis,” possession would become legal for those over 21 beginning July 1, 2023, provided an individual had no more than 1.5 ounces (42.5 grams), and criminal penalties associated with cannabis paraphernalia are repealed.
The law also requires the attorney general to provide a formal opinion to the General Assembly regarding the ability of police officers to search individuals and vehicles based on the odor of cannabis.
The Republican Party’s nominee for attorney general, Michael Peroutka, did not answer a request for comment on the ballot question by the time of publication. U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-4th, the Democratic Party’s nominee for attorney general, indicated the state was moving in the right direction. Brown pointed to the benefits of adult lawful use in reducing arrests.
“You’re eliminating the unnecessary arrest, the criminal records for use of a substance that is not proven to create the harm that we once thought it did,” Brown, the state’s former lieutenant governor, said in an interview after a Sept. 13 event in Washington County.
Of all the counties in the United States, Worcester and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore along with Calvert County in Southern Maryland had three of the Top 10 highest arrest rates for marijuana possession in 2018.
The state also showed a marked racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests that year, according to FBI and U.S. Census bureau data, with people who are Black being arrested at a higher rate than people who are white despite similar usage.
Is there a wider impact on legalizing marijuana in Maryland?
The state’s primary health agency, the Maryland Department of Health, did not weigh in on the ballot question.
“We take no position and have no comment on this issue,” Acting Director of Communications Chase Cook wrote in an email.
Cynthia Schifler, alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention coordinator with the Wicomico County Health Department, said more widespread acceptance of marijuana could worsen problems created by other drugs, such as increasing the number of drug-related emergency room visits.
She also raised questions about marijuana and driving, how marijuana would factor in with the state’s strong smoking laws, and how employers would handle the drug in the workplace.
“People should think not about themselves (when voting on the issue),” said the health official of 35 years in Wicomico County, “they should think about the population at-large and what kind of impact that would have on people’s health and their wellbeing.”
McCauley, the lieutenant in the Washington County sheriff’s office, provided something else for voters to consider when the question appears before them on the ballot: their conscience.
“Vote your conscience and what you want to see out of law enforcement and the Legislature,” he said, “and law enforcement will certainly follow suit and adjust as needed.”
Dwight A. Weingarten is an investigative reporter, covering the Maryland State House and state issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DwightWeingart2.