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Focus shifts to decriminalizing marijuana paraphernalia

The next marijuana battleground in Maryland could be an effort to decriminalize possession of related paraphernalia used for smoking the drug.

Supporters and opponents say they expect the General Assembly to take up the issue less than one year after a law that decriminalized adult possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“We’ve made this determination that we’ll treat this substance as a health issue so it make sense that we lessen the penalties on the hardware,” said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.

Zirkin was the lead sponsor of a bill passed earlier this year that made possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana subject to a civil citation and fine of $100 to $500, depending on the number of violations. Individuals cited for the third time, or who are under the age of 18, would be required to appear in court, where they could be required to attend substance abuse education or rehabilitation programs.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to address the issue of possession of related marijuana paraphernalia.

Possession of related paraphernalia was not part of the state law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana that went into effect on June 1.

“It’s a debate worth having,” said Zirkin. “The omission of paraphernalia in the bill this year wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was tough enough to get that bill out.”

Zirkin said he expects the state lawmakers will take up the issue and said he would sponsor legislation if no one else does.

Under current law, possession of paraphernalia is a citation offense that carries a $500 fine. Individuals who are cited must appear in court and the charge appears on public records and online judicial records.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County, said the move to decriminalize the tools used to smoke the drug is not unexpected.

“We talked about this on the House floor,” said Cluster. “We knew it was coming. One goes hand in hand with the other.”

But not everyone thinks the idea of decriminalizing paraphernalia is a good one. Cluster, a retired Baltimore County police officer, said it could undermine cases against drug dealers.

“It helps [police] strengthen the charge,” Cluster said. “It could hurt getting convictions on possession with intent to distribute.”

Cluster said it would also prevent police officers from conducting searches.

“It just takes one more tool out of the tool box,” Cluster said.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, a vocal critic of decriminalizing marijuana, agreed.

Shellenberger said he would like to see legislators go back to Annapolis in January and work on tightening the current law.

“I think we should fix this,” Shellenberger said. “We need a bright line for police officers so that we don’t have to wait for the courts to decide in five years.”

One of those improvements, Shellenberger said, would be to add language making it clear that it is illegal to smoke marijuana in public.

“If we make it clear that it’s illegal to smoke in public then we can get rid of paraphernalia being illegal,” Shellenberger said. “Go ahead, lump the paraphernalia in there because why would we want to make possessing the pipe worse than the possession of marijuana. We just need some consistency in the law.”