The debate behind marijuana decriminalization

Photo courtesy of Erik Fenderson
A pipe and some marijuana.

By Matt Schnabel

A bong sat on the coffee table in Mark’s off-campus apartment, surrounded by red plastic cups, condiment bottles and ashes.

It’s a scene typical of the junior accounting major’s common room, said Aaron, one of Mark’s roommates. Both students’ last names were withheld because they discussed drug use and drug sales.

“I haven’t been around to clean it up,” said Aaron, who added that the housework after his roommate’s marijuana smoking sessions often falls to him, though he doesn’t smoke himself.

Since the fall semester, the two’s apartment has been home to a burgeoning marijuana trade perpetrated by Mark, a business the Rockville, Maryland, native said grew out of a simple desire to fund his cannabis habit.

“Smoke for free,” Mark said regarding his motives behind entering the campus drug trade. “Smoke for free.”

Mark smoked marijuana for the first time in ninth grade when a friend offered him the drug; soon after, he began smoking regularly on weekends. Now, he frequently smokes marijuana throughout the week during the school year as well as every day during the summer.

“I used to know nothing about weed,” he said. “Then [my friend] was like, ‘Do you wanna smoke?’ … Eventually, it escalated.”

Pot and prejudice

On April 14, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, replacing criminal sanctions with civil penalties and joining 15 states and the District that have taken similar approaches.

Under the new law, which will take effect Oct. 10, those caught with less than 10 grams of marijuana will be subject to escalating civil fines, beginning with $100 for a first offense.

“As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety,” O’Malley said in a public statement before signing the bill. “I now think that [it] is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health.”

This state had the fourth highest rate of arrests for marijuana possession in the nation in 2010, when the arrest rate was 409 arrests per 100,000 residents, according to an American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland report.

That year, the state spent about $106 million enforcing marijuana possession laws, part of a war on drugs many have decried as an excessively costly policy that unfairly targets racial minorities. In 2010, African Americans accounted for 30 percent of the state’s population but 58 percent of marijuana possession arrests, though studies have shown white and black use of the drug is comparable, according to the ACLU report.

Rob, a senior film major at this university who was convicted in 2013 of misdemeanor marijuana possession and fined for paraphernalia possession, said the new state law is “more appropriate.”

“In my opinion, it should be entirely legal,” said Rob, whose name has been withheld because he discusses marijuana use. “But I’d certainly rather have to pay a hundred-dollar fine than spend a night in jail, be forced to show up in court, afford a lawyer, go to a drug treatment program, get drug-tested for several months and pay fines for almost all of that. The thing about getting arrested is it’s very expensive to get arrested. … I’d rather just pay one flat fee and not do any of the rest of the b——-.”

However, the state’s decriminalization law likely will effect little change in the university’s drug policies, said Alan Lehman, a university criminology and criminal justice professor.

“[Decriminalization] is for the entire state, but I have to imagine that there are some special circumstances in certain environments,” Lehman said. “So there are going to be different penalties that would apply because it’s a college campus.”

Caught on campus

The state might have passed a sweeping change to its marijuana laws, but existing drug policies at this university will remain in place for the indefinite future, according to Tamara Saunders, Office of Student Conduct associate director.

“There are no plans to change or modify the drug policy,” Saunders wrote in an email. “The policy as it currently reads remains intact.”

University students found in possession of marijuana under current school policies are referred to either the Office of Student Conduct or the Office of Rights and Responsibilities, according to university documents.

After meeting with students to discuss the allegations and evidence, officials can levy sanctions ranging from eviction from campus housing and a one-year suspension to expulsion, though in some situations, University Health Center-sponsored substance abuse and drug-testing programs can replace the standard one-year suspension, Saunders said.

“The drug policy at the university is that students do face a one-year suspension from school,” Saunders said. “Typically, I would say that students usually for first-time offenses are resolved administratively, but there are times that students are forwarded to our hearing boards. Our hearing boards are really reserved for our most severe cases.”

As a dealer, Mark’s sales could present such serious cases. Mark said he keeps a minimum of a quarter ounce of the drug in his apartment at all times; however, he’s acquired up to a quarter pound of marijuana, more than 10 times the amount for which possession was decriminalized by the General Assembly.

Once, a student Mark didn’t know showed up at his door with $150 in cash, asking how much marijuana he could buy. It put Mark in a difficult situation, as he said he typically vets all of his buyers through mutual friends.

“He put me in a really awkward position,” Mark said. “I was like, ‘F—, I don’t know.”

Mark said he isn’t worried about getting caught by university or county police because he lives off-campus and is selective about his buyers, though 20 off-campus drug-related incidents were referred to the student conduct and Rights and Responsibilities offices this academic year.

“[My cousin] was like, ‘What are you going to do about it next year, about the dope?’ I was like, ‘I’m trapping now, so it’s OK,’” Mark said. “He was like, ‘What? That’s stupid.’ I was like, “Nah, for real, it’s OK.”

Rob, who buys marijuana from Mark and smokes several times a week, said he hopes the university reconsiders its policies.

“You wouldn’t get kicked out on your first offense for an alcohol-related thing, and every scientific — every nonbiased scientific — study in the world says that marijuana is less addictive and less physically harmful than alcohol,” Rob said. “The only real difference between the two is that there’s prohibition regarding one and not the other, which isn’t the university’s fault, but at the same time, it’s as much a ridiculous policy as it is a ridiculous law.”

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