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Maryland Lawmakers Work To Decriminalize Drug Paraphernalia

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The governor vetoed similar legislation last session.

By Hannah Gaskill, Maryland Matters

Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) are making their third attempt at decriminalizing drug paraphernalia in Maryland this legislative session.

House Bill 481, sponsored by Moon, would decriminalize the possession of syringes, hypodermic needles and any other tools necessary to introduce drugs into the body intravenously.

Additionally, the legislation would reduce the penalty for possession from a maximum of four years in prison and a $25,000 fine to a maximum of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Under current law, the first offense penalty for heroin possession—the drug inside the syringe—is one-year imprisonment or a $5,000 fine.

“This high risk for those carrying syringes leads to what we’ve heard…police complaining about the risk of pricks from people hiding them when they’re being searched, from people sharing dirty needles because they’re now a scarce resource and people dumping them in public places because they don’t want to get caught with them and risk four years,” Moon said during a bill hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Its cross-file, Senate Bill 509, was heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday.

Moon said that the intent of the bill is to assist harm reduction organizations in their effort to reduce instances of drug users participating in dangerous behaviors as the state confronts both the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic.

Ricky Morris Sr. works with the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, which distributes tools like Narcan and sterile syringes to people facing addiction. He told committee members Tuesday that he hears positive stories about his community outreach.

But Morris also sees participants in his program express hesitancy when taking this potentially life-saving aid.

“The one thing that I do hear from them is the fear of having these products,” he said. “They always ask about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get arrested for having these products.’”

The bill, which passed out of both chambers during last legislative session, could assuage those fears.

Moon and Carter co-sponsored the measure during the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions.

Neither version of the 2020 bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee or the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The Senate version of the 2021 bill passed through both chambers along party lines but was vetoed by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

“This is an ill–advised policy change that does nothing to remove drug dealers from our streets or reduce opioid–related fatalities, and instead encourages the use and possession of paraphernalia associated with drug use,” Hogan wrote in the bill’s veto letter.

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) tabled the bill when the legislature took on veto overrides during the 2021 special session, saying the “very complex issue” needed more time before it could be enacted.

“We really want to make sure it’s done the right way. It’s an important issue that we really have to figure out,” Ferguson said during an interview before the special session gaveled in. “And we’ll take it up again in our coming session [in 2022]. We just have to get it right.”

In spite of calls from advocates, parliamentary rules prevented the bill from being brought back up for discussion during the special session.

Moon and Carter made some adjustments to the legislation in an effort to address some of Hogan’s and Ferguson’s concerns. But Moon told his colleagues Tuesday that he is inclined to amend the bill back to its original language.

“I hope for your support once again, and maybe we can get people to think straight this time,” he said.

This story was first published by Maryland Matters.

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