What is Marijuana Decriminalization?

Pot-Leaf-Small-Button-(0014)DC has done it now. Maryland will do it effective October 1. But what is it, really?

Washington DC’s marijuana decriminalization law took effect yesterday. Maryland passed a very similar law that takes effect October 1. Many people mistakenly think that this means pot is legal now. It is not. DC and Maryland did not just become Colorado. That is a misconception. Here are the facts about both DC and Maryland’s pot decriminalization laws:

As of now, it is still illegal to possess marijuana in DC. The Maryland law will take effect October 1, and pot will still be illegal in Maryland then. The difference is that it is no longer a “criminal” offense. The criminal offense has been replaced by a civil offense. So instead of a criminal charge, you will get a civil fine for carrying small amounts of pot. You will not get arrested, you will not stand trial, and you will have no criminal record. This is very similar to getting a traffic ticket (but without the point system and potential blemish on your driving record). 

But wait, there is a lot more to explain about these laws. There are caveats to each, dramatically different penalties, and interesting enforcement hurdles. The devil is always in the details!

This new DC law only applies to carrying marijuana, and only carrying less than 1 ounce. You still cannot smoke pot openly, drive under the influence of pot, or sell it. Oh, and they also seize your pot if they catch you. The fine is DC is a mere $25.

In Maryland, the law applies to carrying less than 10 grams. In Maryland, the first offense can be a ticket for up to $100, which is substantially more than DC. A second offense in Maryland gets hit with up to $250. At the third offense the fine is potentially $500, and you may have to enter a court approved drug treatment program to deal with your problem. Those under 21 have similar penalties, but will have to undergo drug assessment and treatment programs (much like underage drinking is treated now).

There are some very interesting caveats to the DC law that make it unclear how it will be enforced. For one, it does not apply to any Federal land, or even to Federal officers. So you can’t take joints with you when you go to visit the Smithsonian. Also, Congress is trying to override this law anyway. Whether they will remains to be seen. This may be a very short lived law.

In Maryland, the politicians also revived the Medical Marijuana program. It is impossible to report on how that will work because the State is now coming up with regulations to administer it. They say they don’t want it to be as “out of control” as it is in California, but how they do that is anyone’s guess. We will report on that as it makes its way through the regulatory system. 

The stated goal of these laws is NOT to make it OK to use marijuana. They say they want to treat marijuana as a health problem instead of a criminal problem. But many others (myself included) think these laws will simply lead to a governmental acceptance of smoking pot, and they are the precursor to legalizing pot in both Maryland and DC. I just can’t see the authorities caring much about civil fines and enforcement for something they are told is not really that important anymore. Time will tell.

Bottom line: Pot is NOT legal in DC, and won’t be legal in Maryland this fall, no matter what your Facebook friends may say.

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