Pubdate: Sun, 07 Feb 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Josh Hicks


Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim on Friday proposed four bills that would 
radically change the state's approach to dealing with drug problems, 
in part by removing criminal penalties for low-level possession and 
adding an emphasis on addiction treatment.

One measure would create "safe spaces" for drug use, with facilities 
that provide sterile injection equipment, medical care and 
connections to social services.

Another bill would establish a pilot program to test the 
effectiveness of treating addicts with the supervised use of free, 
pharmaceutical-grade opioids, such as heroin and hydromorphone, with 
the goal of weaning users off their addictions.

Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), an emergency room physician and faculty 
member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the 
University of Maryland Medical School, also proposed legislation to 
require hospitals to make addiction counselors available to patients 
at all times and have arrangements for transferring drug users to 
appropriate detoxification and rehabilitation centers.

The bill to decriminalize low-level drug possession would expand on a 
2014 law that made the possession of small amounts of marijuana 
subject to a civil fine, not a criminal charge. Similar rules would 
apply to all narcotics under the legislation Morhaim proposed Friday.

Morhaim, who plans to introduce the bills in the House of Delegates 
this week, said his legislative package would push Maryland out of 
what he calls the "failing" war on drugs and closer to addiction treatment.

He said his proposals are likely to be highly controversial but noted 
that various studies of similar programs in Europe and other foreign 
jurisdictions suggest that his strategies could lower the costs of 
health-care, criminal justice and insurance programs while reducing 
damage to communities and the education system.

"Frankly, I didn't buy into these approaches either when I first 
heard about them, but my thinking has evolved," he said. "I think 
people will come to see these bills as I do - positive, rational and 
cost-effective steps forward."

Morhaim's plans arise as the state grapples with a fast-growing 
heroin epidemic.

In Maryland, 578 people died of heroin overdoses in 2014, a 25 
percent increase over 2013 and more than twice the number who died 
from the drug in 2010.

Nationwide, fatal heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled from 0.7 deaths 
per 100,000 of population in 2000 to 2.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2013, 
according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Morhaim's announcement came less than two weeks after Gov. Larry 
Hogan (R) proposed legislation to combat the opioid epidemic with 
stricter drug-trafficking penalties and expansion of a database that 
helps health professionals and law-enforcement officials detect when 
prescription pain medications are being abused.

Morhaim's proposals also dovetail with recent work by Maryland's 
Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, which recommended in 
December that the legislature consider drastically changing 
sentencing guidelines for drug offenders, in part by focusing more on 
treatment than on incarceration for those charged with possession.

Maryland's law-enforcement community has generally resisted efforts 
to loosen drug laws, saying the changes could encourage more abuse 
and increase instances of driving while impaired.

However, Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement 
Against Prohibition and a retired 33-year veteran of the Maryland 
state and Baltimore police forces, said those objections stem from a 
"lack of education" and perspective, adding that the state should 
provide opportunities for police to hear from colleagues in other 
states and countries that have adopted policies similar to what 
Morhaim has proposed.

Morhaim acknowledged that he has a long way to go to win his 
colleagues' support, but he said Maryland House Speaker Michael E. 
Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has allowed him to address the chamber's 
leadership about his ideas. Additionally, Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam 
(D-Baltimore) has backed the bills.

"I think it's fair to allow people time, but when people look at it 
carefully ... I think more will come around," he said. "I've seen a 
whole range of issues that people have come around on."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom