(April 2, 2021) Local lawmakers are concerned about a new potential law that they say could endanger and hinder law enforcement officers when dealing with drug offenders.
Senate Bill 420 would decriminalize the possession of items typically used to distribute heroin and other controlled dangerous substances, like syringes, spoons, needles and scales on first offense. It passed with Republican opposition in the Senate last week and now awaits discussion in the House.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) released a statement this week opposing the bill. She said it “sends the wrong message” with the resurgence of the opioid epidemic during the covid-19 pandemic. She also argued that it would remove “an important tool for law enforcement to shut down drug dealers and identify those that would benefit from addiction counseling and treatment.”
Del. Wayne Hartman (R-38 C) expressed similar concerns.
“I don’t support any legislation supporting illegal drugs … It takes away another tool from law enforcement to allow them to effectively do their jobs,” he said.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, the bill’s sponsor, said the existing penalties associated with the possession of the listed items, which includes fines and jail time, actually hinders the ability to treat individuals who are struggling with drug issues.
“The goal of this bill is take that fear of jail, incarceration, court away from the person that is in need of treatment,” Carter said during a debate on the Senate floor last week. “There’s a lot of research that shows that this concept that we must hold criminal sanctions, or court, or some mandate that if you don’t do this then this is going to happen over people that are addicted isn’t necessarily the successful way to treatment. But when they get the treatment without the repercussions of arrest, jail, court, they’re more inclined to do it and do it in a way that is more helpful to them.”
Another goal is to prevent individuals legally allowed to distribute these types of materials from getting arrested. Carter said that individuals testified that despite having ID cards and documentation proving legitimacy, police still arrested or fined them.
Ashley Miller, the deputy communications manager for the Ocean City Police Department, said via email that the legislation is concerning for officers, but that they will only know the specific effects when and if it passes.
“Officer safety is always a concern when our officers encounter situations with controlled dangerous substances (CDS). An officer safety concern specific to drug paraphernalia is getting stuck by a needle during [a] search of a person or space (house, car, etc.),” she said. “Regardless, if this bill is passed, the officer safety concern will always exist. Needles in particular pose a threat to officers — if you have them for legal (i.e. diabetic) or illegal (i.e. drug use) purposes. We urge anyone that has needles to always ensure that they are properly capped and stored in a safe location.”
According to information Miller forwarded from the federal Uniform Crime Reporting program, the Ocean City Police Department made 474 controlled dangerous substance arrests in 2020 and 561 in 2019. She said that she was not able to pull out the number of paraphernalia charges from the total number of drug charges, but that they typically go hand-in-hand.