Tuesday: Maryland House of Delegates to Hold the First-Ever Legislative Hearing in the U.S. on Decriminalization of Small Amounts of Illicit Drugs

Press Release February 28, 2016
Media Contact

<h2 class="subtitle">
<p>Delegate Dan Morhaim, 410-841-3054<br />
Lindsay LaSalle, 510-679-2315<br />
Tony Newman, 212-613-8026</p>

Tuesday at 1pm, the Maryland House of Delegates will hold the first-ever legislative hearing on decriminalizing small amounts of illegal drugs, including cocaine and heroin. House Bill 1119, which removes criminal penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenses under certain minimal threshold limits and instead imposes a civil fine, will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee.

Rather than reducing drug use, criminalizing people who use drugs amplifies the risk of fatal overdoses and diseases, increases stigma, and drives people away from needed treatment and harm reduction services.  Criminalization also produces profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups.  Indeed, although rates of marijuana use, for example, are comparable across racial lines in Maryland, African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than their white counterparts in every single county.

HB 1119, introduced by Delegate Dan Morhaim, would keep people possessing a small amount of drugs out of the criminal justice system altogether, thereby saving critical resources, avoiding the costs of saddling more Maryland citizens with criminal records and their adverse consequences, and reducing racial disparities.  The bill has been formally endorsed by the Legislative Black Caucus. 

“We have decades of proof that arresting people simply for using or possessing drugs does far more harm than good.  Maryland has the opportunity to serve as a model for the country in treating drug use for what it is—a public health issue,” says Delegate Morhaim.  “This legislation reflects the scientific, evidence-based research proving how to best help people who use drugs, their families, and the community at large.”

Nearly two dozen countries have taken steps toward decriminalization. The best and most well-documented example is Portugal, which in 2001 eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs.  Studies of Portugal’s policy, on which the bill is based, conclusively show that it does not result in increased use or crime, reduces incidences of HIV/AIDS and overdose, increases the number of people in treatment, and reduces social costs of drug misuse.

These outcomes are simply not being accomplished through Maryland’s current system, which incarcerates 4,000 people for drug crimes at any given point in time at a cost of $260 million in annual corrections spending.

“Attempting to treat drug use through the criminal justice system has been a policy disaster and has led to tragic consequences,” said Theshia Naidoo, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, “Delegate Morhaim’s bill is a bold and necessary correction of that misjudgment—one that recognizes that we must end the era of criminalizing what is, at its essence, a health issue.”

HB 1119 is part of a comprehensive package of four bills, including HB 908 (hospital-based treatment on demand), HB 1212 (safer consumption facilities), and HB 1267 (poly-morphone-assisted treatment), introduced by Delegate Morhaim to reduce the harms associated with substance abuse disorders, including rates of addiction, deadly overdose, the spread of infectious disease, crime, costs to the general public, and incarceration rates.  Hearings on HB 1212 and 1267 will take place on March 8 at 1:00 p.m. in the Maryland House Health & Government Operations Committee.

Below is an overview of the four drug policy bills:

Addiction Treatment-at-Need and on Demand in ERs and Hospitals – In Maryland, drug related deaths are on the rise. Associated harms, including drug-related crime and violence, the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and the impact on health care insurance premiums and taxpayers are concerns for the state. Conservative estimates show that for every $1 spent on treatment approximately $12 is saved in criminal justice and health care costs.  For a wide variety of reasons, hospitals are an excellent location to initiate treatment. This bill requires acute care hospitals to have an addiction treatment counselor available or on-call 24/7 to patients in emergency rooms and in-hospital and to have defined arrangements for transfer to appropriate detoxification and rehabilitation care services. The bill also calls for the State’s hospital regulatory agency (HSCRC) to develop cost-effective strategies to support hospital capital and operating expenses.

Safe Consumption Programs – This bill permits the establishment of safe consumption programs which allow individuals to consume controlled substances in a safe space, provide sterile equipment, and connect patients to treatment, medical care, and other social services. Similar facilities now operate in Europe, Australia, and Canada with excellent results, including reducing the spread of infectious diseases, and because medical staff is immediately available, overdose deaths have been eliminated.  This bill allows local health departments to singularly establish such programs.  Community-based organizations may also establish such programs after obtaining approval from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene when specific criteria are met.

Poly-Morphone-Assisted Treatment – This bill tasks the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with creating an advisory committee to review research proposals and support the establishment of a 4-year poly-morphone-assisted treatment pilot project in Maryland.  Poly-morphone-assisted treatment refers to the administering or dispensing of pharmaceutical–grade heroin, hydromorphone, or other opioids to a small and previously consistently unresponsive group of chronic heroin users under medical supervision in a specialized clinic.  This group of users is directly responsible for a significant portion of street crime and uncompensated health care costs that are eventually born by taxpayers. Bringing them into treatment immediately reduces their anti-social behavior and provides an opportunity for further care. Programs in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, as well as clinical trials in Canada and elsewhere, have achieved unanimously positive results.

Decriminalization of Small Amounts of Drugs for Personal Use – Rather than reducing drug use, criminalizing substance abusers amplifies the risk of fatal overdoses and diseases, increases stigma, and drives people away from needed treatment and harm reduction services.  This bill would keep some drug users – those possessing minimal amounts – out of the criminal justice system, thereby saving critical resources and avoiding the costs of saddling more Maryland citizens with criminal records and their adverse consequences. In 2001 Portugal became the first nation to eliminate criminal penalties for low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs. The Cato Institute studied the results of Portugal’s policy and stated “none of nightmare scenarios…from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for drug tourists has occurred.” Furthermore, “decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates”, and the level of drug trafficking has also declined. And the incidence of other drug-related problems, including sexually transmitted diseases and deaths from drug overdoses, has “decreased dramatically.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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