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Pot illegal, just not as much

(Oct. 3, 2014) Gone are the days when local residents could speed by a tow truck on their way to a county Bingo Board hearing. But if you still do, at least you won’t have to worry about that joint in the glove box going on your criminal record.

The 328 new state laws that went into effect Oct. 1 run the gamut from decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana – a major step for the state – to the expansion of the so-called “Move Over Law” and the elimination of the antiquated Worcester County Bingo Board

Given the volume of low-level drug arrests in Ocean City, the decriminalization bill stands to have a huge effect for the resort area.

“It’s a true departure from our traditional way of treating the subject,” said Ocean City Police Department Chief Ross Buzzuro. “Our officers have undergone training and they’re well-versed now with the new law.”

But while marijuana enforcement may have softer teeth, the state’s “Move Over Law,” which makes it a ticket-able traffic offense to fail to move over a lane or slow down for emergency vehicles on the highway, has been hardened.

Motorists will now be obligated to move over or slow down for tow trucks performing roadside pickups of disabled vehicles, or else face a fine.

Further, the state has finally put an end to the Worcester County Bingo Board, formally transferring its authority to the Worcester County Department of Review and Permitting.

At one time, county-level Bingo Boards issued permits to non-profit groups wishing to hold bingo games. Some decades ago, bingo was seen as a major gambling enterprise but in recent years, the board has met only twice a year for limited business.

Under the new marijuana statute, possession of less than 10 grams of the substance is no longer a criminal offense, but rather a civil infraction punishable by a fine of up to $100 for the first offense. Second offense fines go up to $250, and up to $500 for third and subsequent offenses.

While this is not expected to change the OCPD’s overall volume of drug enforcement, Buzzuro said, it will change how these enforcement actions are recorded, since small marijuana violations will no longer involve arrests.

For nearly two years, Maryland has had more lenient marijuana enforcement under the “eligible offender” statue. This policy allows those who have been arrested for certain offenses – including marijuana possession – to be issued a so-called “criminal citation” and released on the spot, instead of being booked at the station, as long as they meet certain eligibility requirements for previous offenses.

The citation statute has already caused the number of full custodial arrests, and the amount of marijuana offenders passing through the 65th Street OCPD headquarters, to drop substantially over the past two seasons.

But full decriminalization will create a big change for how the department handles drug stops, since lack of a criminal offense may often mean officers have no probable cause for further investigation.

“There will be limitations,” Buzzuro said. “A search may not be warranted, because you don’t have an arrest situation. That’s the big example of the departure from what we’re accustomed to.

“It’s created a series of challenges for us … we have to look at our strategy and adjust our tactics appropriately.”

The possession of marijuana-related paraphernalia, however, still qualifies as a crime.

A September 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found that 68 percent of Maryland voters supported removing criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. While 10 grams is roughly one-third of an ounce, the Maryland State Police have advised officers in the state to use their best judgment on-scene to estimate weight.

Offenders who are arrested, but whose supply turns out to be less than 10 grams when weighed at the station, are to be released with a fine instead. It has yet to be seen if offenders charged with additional crimes, as a result of marijuana-related search and seizure, will be able to contest probable cause if it is later found that their drugs weighed less than 10 grams.

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