Sometimes the most important thing you can do if you want to change somebody’s mind is not to argue, but instead, ask a question that gets at the very heart of the matter. This is exactly what Delegate Daniel Morhaim did last week as he introduced legislation before Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee that, if passed, could at long last bring an end to the War on Drugs in this country.
Under House Bill 488, low-level possession of any drug — not just marijuana – would be decriminalized. The first arrest for low-level possession would be treated as a civil, not criminal offense, with a fine of $100. A court would refer the individual to treatment. The second arrest would lead to a $250 fine and a second assignment to treatment. Only with a third arrest would a criminal sanction be applied: jail and a $500 fine.
Delegate Morhaim is the first elected official to bring such a proposal forward in the United States. This is the second year he has introduced his bill. I was proud to testify on its behalf. The bill received a respectful hearing. The majority of those testifying were overwhelmingly supportive.
Their statements were compelling, often heart-wrenching. One 21-year woman told of witnessing a rape and attempted suicide in jail. A middle-aged man described his inability to ever find employment after receiving a first arrest. Others pointed out that the legislation would enable Maryland to save over $250 million annually in prison costs, much of which could be diverted to paying for drug and mental health treatment and more urgent public safety priorities.
But law enforcement, of course, is firmly opposed. And that is why Delegate Morhaim’s question is so important. It forces them, and all of us, to look carefully at what they do and whether drug use should be a crime. Here is what he asked: “Can people be motivated without fear of incarceration? Do we always have to put people in jail in order to scare them into doing the right thing?”
For law enforcement, the answer is almost inevitably “yes.” That is how they define themselves. That is what they have been trained to do.
The exact words of the assistant state’s attorney who testified against the bill say it all: “There needs to be a stick in order to provide that little additional incentive for someone who may or may not be interested in treatment or needs the incentive to complete the program.”
He acknowledged the importance of diverting people to treatment. But the fact is that police most often do so only after they have arrested them. That “little additional incentive” he referred to – what a remarkable characterization – ruins lives. It is the first arrest that makes it almost impossible for someone to then get a job, stay connected with a family, and even have access to public services. It makes drug use more, not less, likely.
The reasons why people can overcome drug addiction are complex. There will always be individuals who say they had to do jail time before they were finally able to face their drug problem. Drug courts, which require treatment as an alternative to incarceration, have helped some people. But for most who suffer from drug addiction, arrest and incarceration are not the answer. There is no justification for putting 40,000 people in Maryland prisons each year for low-level drug offenses.
Those who answer “yes” to Delegate Morhaim’s question are doing far more harm than good. Neil Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (L.E.A.P.), knows this from his more than 30 years as a law enforcement officer in Maryland. He testified in support of HB 488. ”We can’t effectively do both, treating this condition as a public health and criminal justice matter. It would be like attempting to serve two masters. Let’s actively choose public health.”
Thank you, Delegate Morhaim, for asking the right question.
Access the Complete VideoTo view the full video of the legislative hearing:
- Go to the Maryland House Committee Judiciary Video page.
- Click on the small “i” located at the bottom right of the page.
- From the menu that pops up, click the second link labeled “1:19:55 hb488”
- Click the small “x” located in the upper right corner.
- Click the play button to begin the video.