The Maryland General Assembly on Monday night passed legislation to legalize the possession and distribution of heroin paraphernalia, including needles and syringes.
The Senate vote was 28-19; the House tally was 95-38. The Senate tally would fall one short of the 29 affirmative votes needed to override a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan, should he choose to reject the legislation.
Sponsors of 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.
“The war on drugs has failed,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson in explaining why he voted for the measure.
“We have an absolute scourge of overdoses,” added Ferguson, D-Baltimore. “We have to take a different approach.”
But opponents countered that decriminalization of paraphernalia will benefit the illegal drug trade by preventing police from stopping individuals they suspect of using heroin or assisting others in getting high and perhaps overdosing.
An earlier Senate-passed bill would have maintained the prohibition on distributing heroin paraphernalia, but in the final hour of the 2021 session Monday night, the Senate adopted the House-approved version that included distribution.
The adoption drew scorn from Sen. Justin Ready, R-Carroll.
Ready said he opposes but understands the public safety argument of legalizing paraphernalia possession. However, distribution is “not good policy” because it goes beyond personal use of heroin, he added.
The bill would decriminalize those who maintain “a huge stockpile of heroin paraphernalia” for use by others, Ready said.
“I am deeply concerned,” Ready said “It is a huge overreach.”
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.