A new Maryland law allows people convicted of possessing marijuana to argue for sharply reduced sentences if it was used for medical purposes. The Washington Post says that prosecutors are a bit nervous because the law lacks language defining just who can use the defense and how a judge should interpret it. “All I can assume is now we will have defendants come into court with the health section of High Times [magazine] and try to tell me Timothy Leary prescribed use of this,” said Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly (R).
Maryland’s unique approach–reducing penalties for possession rather than legalizing the drug — is being watched by other states as a possible model. The first-if-its-kind legislation also drew the attention of the White House, which lobbied hard against it.
The law was a compromise between those who wanted to show compassion for people with severe illnesses and those who wanted to prevent outright legalization. It limits the fine for marijuana possession to $100 if the defendant can prove that the drug was used as a medicine. Otherwise, the defendant could be fined as much as $1,000 and spend one year in jail. The statute does not specify what illness a defendant must have or what evidence the defense needs to produce to argue the case. It doesn’t differentiate between physical or psychological conditions.
James N. Vaughan, chief judge of the District Court of Maryland, which hears most marijuana possession cases, said he seldom hears the medicinal-use defense and doubted that defendants would go through “some great, elaborate ruse” for an offense that carries a fairly light sentence. In 2001, 17,676 people in Maryland were charged with possessing marijuana.