Maryland Lawmakers Won’t Vote To Decriminalize Syringes And Other Drug Paraphernalia

Maryland lawmakers won’t vote this week to decriminalize paraphernalia used to inject drugs, allowing a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan to stand.

The Maryland Senate opted Monday to “postpone indefinitely” a decision on a paraphernalia decriminalization bill that the Republican governor vetoed earlier this year.

Lawmakers have been called to Annapolis for a special session with the primary purpose of approving new boundaries for the state’s eight Congressional districts, reflecting population changes recorded in the 2020 census. But they also face decisions this week on a few dozen Hogan vetoes.

Sen. Jill P. Carter said she was “heartbroken” at the paraphernalia decriminalization bill’s fate. Carter, a Democrat from Baltimore, has been working on the issue for years and sees it as a small measure that would help save lives.

Under current law, having needles, syringes, cookers or other supplies is punishable by up to four years in prison. Proponents of decriminalization note that actual possession of drugs carries a more lenient penalty of up to one year behind bars.

Health and overdose prevention workers, who distribute fresh supplies to people who use drugs, say that their clients fear being arrested and thrown in jail. So they may be more likely to hide their drug use and use alone, increasing their risk of overdose with no one around to help.

Or, they may ditch their used supplies in streets or in parks. And if confronted by police, they might lie about having needles, putting the officer at risk of being stuck.

“We still have a horrific opioid crisis. We have more people losing their lives to opioids than to homicide — as many of my colleagues like to point out about the homicides,” Carter said in an interview. “All of the health advocates, all of the organizations, the people that distribute these supplies, they were all strongly in favor. There was very little to no opposition to the bill.”

Carter chalked up the bill’s demise to lawmakers not understanding the bill or being cautious politically as campaign season approaches.

“I’m going to assume there were people who had hesitations voting for it in an election year because of the implications that you’re pro drug abuse or something — which we’re not,” Carter said. “It’s about saving lives.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson said in an interview the Senate will consider the issue of drug paraphernalia during the next regular General Assembly session, planned for January.

“It’s a really complex issue,” said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “We really want to make sure it’s done the right way.”

Hogan and opponents raised concerns that decriminalizing the tools used to inject drugs would do little to curb overdoses. And they suggested drug dealers might stock up on supplies and sell or give them to people buying drugs to encourage more drug use.

The measure easily passed the House of Delegates, and leaders there said they had the votes to override Hogan’s veto and put the bill into law. But in the state Senate, the final tally was one vote shy of overriding the veto.

Lawmakers also began the task of overriding several other vetoes from Hogan, a process that takes a few days as each chamber must vote on each veto.

The Senate took the first step toward overriding vetoes by casting largely party-line votes in support of measures require a plan for managing the coronavirus pandemic, mandate extra spending on mass transit maintenance projects, allow for community college workers to unionize and to give local governments the flexibility to set local income tax rates at different levels based on income. The House of Delegates still would need to vote on the measures.

After extended debate, senators also voted to uphold a measure that removes the governor’s final say in granting parole to inmates serving life sentences in prison. The House is yet to vote on the bill.

Hogan and Republicans objected to the measure, saying it strips governors of an important power that serves as a check on the judicial system. They raised concerns about murderers being set free too soon.

“This is a huge misstep. We’ve made complete Swiss cheese of our law,” said Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican.

Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored the measure for years, said governors don’t have the expertise in making parole decisions that the state’s parole commissioners do. She noted that past governors have publicly regretted their decisions not to grant parole.

Former Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, has said the governor’s role in parole is a “no-win power” that is subject to political criticism. He’s supported the legislation to take the governor out of the process.

Sen. Charles Sydnor noted that parole commissioners are appointed by the governor and the current group includes ex-police officers and ex-prosecutors, who are likely not “soft on crime.”

The Senate also voted to overturn vetoes of bills that tighten rules for emergency government contracts, which was followed by similar overrides in the House of Delegates later in the evening.

Two more vetoed bills that have yet to be taken up, but will be considered this week, limit the ability of state and local government agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

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