By William J. Ford
Tahir Johnson recalled when he drove to Ocean City, Maryland, with his younger brother and teenage cousin to relax during his summer vacation.
Johnson, a college student who attended Howard University in D.C. in the early 2000s, got pulled over by police while driving a Lexus. When threatened by law enforcement that a police dog would “tear up” his vehicle to look for any marijuana, Johnson told police he had a nickel bag of marijuana in his car.
“I haven’t been back to Ocean City since,” Johnson, of Upper Marlboro, said Thursday after he testified before the Maryland Senate Finance Committee. “I was on probation for a year over a nickel bag. Fortunately, I am here and working for the Marijuana Policy Project to stop this criminalization of marijuana and fight for equitable and inclusive policies for this industry.”
Johnson and others testified at a more than one-hour public hearing on comprehensive legislation sponsored by Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City) which seeks to create a legal recreational marijuana market.
It focuses on making sure underserved communities heavily affected by the war on drugs policies can benefit from the cannabis industry.
For instance, the state would create a Cannabis Regulation Fund to benefit and offer grants for small, minority, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses in the cannabis industry in the state.
At least 50% of money collected would support those businesses in communities surrounding “a video lottery facility.”
Personal amounts of cannabis would not exceed four ounces with fewer than six cannabis plants for those ages 21 and older.
One of the most important features in the legislation, Carter and supporters say, it would eliminate criminal penalties for cannabis-related offenses.
“It sets up civil penalties, not criminal,” said Carter, who admits she doesn’t like the marijuana odor. But “this bill is a large step to ending the mass incarceration of Black people.”
Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery County), who’s also sponsoring a similar House of Delegate version of cannabis regulation, asked about certain language in Carter’s bill pertaining to law enforcement not being able to search or detain a person simply based on the smell of cannabis, possession, or suspicion of having cannabis.
“If you found a dead body in the truck [of a vehicle]…would law enforcement be able to do anything?” Feldman said. “I just put that out there.”
Elizabeth Hilliard, assistant director of government relations with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, summarized her response “with a lawyerly answer.”
Hilliard said if a police officer stops a driver and solely searches a vehicle based on marijuana and happens to find a dead body, a police officer could use “inevitable discovery” and point to the behavior of a driver as justification of a search.
“It would be a very fact dependent circumstance that the judge would have to make a decision,” she said.
Meanwhile, the House of Delegates approved legislation last week to allow voters to decide in the November general election to legalize recreational marijuana use and would take effect in July 2023.
Carter said just presenting a referendum without a comprehensive answer to “solving the problem…to repair the damage done to Black and brown communities, and if we don’t put that as a priority, there is really no reason to move forward with recreational legalization.”
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