The Maryland Senate split largely on party lines Wednesday in passing legislation legalizing the possession of heroin paraphernalia, including needles and syringes.
Democratic sponsors of the Senate Bill 420 called the legislation necessary to protect the health and safety of heroin addicts, who often resort to used, broken, shared or homemade needles to support their deadly habit. Republican opponents countered that decriminalization of paraphernalia will benefit the illegal drug trade by preventing police from stopping individuals they suspect of using heroin.
The Senate’s 31-16 vote followed the House of Delegates’ approval of a broader measure that would also repeal the prohibition on delivering or selling paraphernalia with the knowledge it will be used for injecting heroin.
Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of House Bill 372, which was approved last week on a 91-39 vote.
Senators and delegates will try to hammer out differences in the two bills and bring that unified measure to a vote in both chambers before the General Assembly adjourns at 12 a.m. April 13.
Under current law, the penalty for first-offense possession of illegal drug paraphernalia is a fine of up to $500. Each subsequent offense is punishable by up to 2 years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore city and the bill’s chief sponsor, said the bill seeks to protect the health of heroin addicts but permits law enforcement to investigate and prosecute those engaged in the manufacture, distribution and dispensing of the illegal drug.
“All this bill does is try to keep criminalization away from the people that are using these (needles and syringes), to encourage people to use these clean products,” Carter said during floor debate. “This bill really is narrowly tailored to get to this paraphernalia for drug addiction and to enhance public health and public safety.”
Sen. Pamela Beidle, D-Anne Arundel, said she was convinced to support the bill by the Maryland medical community’s testimony that legalization will reduce needle sharing among heroin addicts, which will reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.
But Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll, said the bill would harm public health and safety.
“This bill wipes away any issue with possessing heroin paraphernalia, needles, syringes, spoons, other types of equipment that you’re using that is obviously … for using things like heroin and other types of very dangerous drugs that are ravaging our communities,” Ready said.
“This bill is legalizing it, meaning that if a police officer rolls up on somebody … and they find they have a whole bunch of paraphernalia but no drugs” all the officer can say is ‘Hey, have a nice day,’” Ready added. “At the very least, there should be a citation and a fine and (they) must appear before a judge, because then the person has to interface with some type of authority figure that can say, ‘We need to get you help,’ not put them in jail, but get help. This bill just wipes it all away; it makes it completely legal.”
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, whose Eastern Shore district includes Ocean City, said she fears legalizing heroin paraphernalia will encourage a similar public use of drugs that followed the decriminalization of marijuana possession of less than 10 grams in 2014.
“There will be a direct increase of activity in Ocean City, a family-friendly beach town for the state of Maryland,” said Carozza, R-Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico.