“This should be a relatively easy bill for us because it’s something that we’ve passed before,” State Sen. Jill Carter told the Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the end of a long day of hearings and testimony in Annapolis.

Paraphernalia decriminalization is back in front of state officials because the Maryland Democrats chose not to decriminalize it during December’s special legislative session.

Carter was talking about Senate Bill 509, which would, if finally passed, ostensibly decriminalize drug paraphernalia such as syringes in the state of Maryland.

Currently, possession of paraphernalia can result in up to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine. It is a harsher penalty than possession of the drugs, which can result in one year in prison and a $5,000 fine. 

As Maryland Matters reported, a cross-filed House Bill 481 also had its hearing this week.

Paraphernalia decriminalization helps reduce overdose. “Because paraphernalia is illegal,” as Battleground Baltimore reported in December, “people often use drugs alone or in hiding, which increases the chance of dying of overdose. Cookers are not only for using drugs, but also for testing drugs, which also reduces overdose.” Paraphernalia decriminalization also means “people who use drugs are more apt to carry syringes and keep them rather than throw them away” for fear of getting caught by police. This also reduces the scarcity of needles, which means fewer people share needles, which decreases the spread of disease.

Paraphernalia decriminalization is back in front of state officials because Maryland Democrats chose not to decriminalize it during December’s special legislative session. The bill had actually passed earlier in 2021, but Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it. State Senate President Bill Ferguson said Democrats would not be overturning Hogan’s veto of the bill they’d already voted to pass, frustrating and confounding harm reductionists.

“This is the coward’s way out. They don’t have to vote to sustain the veto but they don’t have to discuss or debate anything,” Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (BHRC) tweeted after Ferguson’s announcement. “We are grieving this horrifying decision by @SenBillFerg and need to take time to take care of our people.”

Eleven states and Washington, DC have decriminalized drug paraphernalia, and harm reduction advocates from across the state came to tell state legislators that Maryland should join that select group.

Katherine Billipp, a nurse practitioner for Healthcare For The Homeless, detailed the devastating impact criminalizing paraphernalia has had on people who use drugs.

“I met Sam, a 23-year-old enrolled in a substance use program. When he lost his job during COVID, he became depressed and soon relapsed using heroin for several months,” Billipp said. “When available, he attended a mobile syringe service program (SSP) but frequently noted police parked in the same area. Sometimes his friends were followed and questioned by the police. He became reluctant to venture out and risk being arrested.”

“Results from our initial test revealed a novel HIV infection. He was devastated. As was I, knowing this could have been prevented with safe, legal, judgment-free access to sterile equipment.”

Katherine Billipp, Nurse practitioner with Healthcare for the Homeless

When Sam could not get needles—or when the risk of being harassed by the cops on the way to getting his needles became too much—he ran short on supplies. So he started sharing needles.

“Fast forward a couple of months,” Billipp said. “He’s three weeks sober and presents to me his … bloodwork. Results from our initial test revealed a novel HIV infection. He was devastated. As was I, knowing this could have been prevented with safe, legal, judgment-free access to sterile equipment.”

Harm reductionists also pushed for an amendment to the bill that would allow for the “sale and delivery” of paraphernalia. BHRC’s Rajani Gudlavalleti noted this is better understood as “secondary distribution,” or, simply, obtaining necessary supplies for other people in the community.

“Secondary distribution is public health,” Gudlavetti said. “If passed, Senate Bill 509 with the amendment will reduce legal barriers to syringe access to align criminal law with widely accepted public health practices, saving costs, stopping unnecessary arrests, and improving the collective impact of drug treatment options.”

Billipp described the support system secondary distribution facilitates among a group of seven people who use drugs and who are living together in a tent. When the group’s syringe supplies are low, they do share needles. Their syringe supplies are low because of criminalization, which discourages carrying needles and makes it more difficult to consistently obtain them.

“They take turns visiting mobile syringe services, collecting supplies for secondary distribution among their social networks. Community members are less likely to volunteer this assistance if they know they might be arrested for possession of paraphernalia,” Billipp said. 

Ron Phillips of Bmore POWER repeated what Sen. Carter said at the start of the hearing, but articulated things a little more directly.

“I can’t believe that I’m testifying again for this. I really thought that we had this nipped in the bud, you know? These are detrimental policies. Paraphernalia. We’re talking about syringes, cookers, pipes, you know?” Phillips said. 

Phillips also made sure to focus on more ambitious ways to address the overdose crisis: Opening up overdose prevention sites (OPS), places where people who use drugs can come to safely use them without fear of arrest.

Drake meme from Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

“I just think that we need to put this behind us and focus on real important issues like bringing OPS to Maryland,” Phillips said. “I thought we had it beat but Hogan happened and Sen. Bill Ferguson is disinterested in overriding the veto. But like I said before, let’s pass this and get some serious stuff in here like OPS.”

In between advocating in Annapolis and engaging in a myriad of harm reduction activities such as distributing supplies, doing community outreach, and educating the public about overdose prevention, BHRC has also taken to meme-ing. The ever present Drake “Hotline Bling” music video stills (“Drakeposting,” it is apparently called) were deployed to advocate for the decriminalization of paraphernalia. 

“Drug Testing?” it reads, with disapproving Drake next to it. Below it, approving Drake appears next to the words “Testing My Drugs.” 

The meme bounced around harm reduction social media and has also made it onto stickers slapped on the sides of mailboxes around the city.

“I was inspired by someone talking about drug testing and I thought, ‘How archaic—are people still doing that? Why are we still testing people for drugs when we should be allowing and encouraging them to be testing the drugs they’re using?’,” BHRC’s Sam Kerr, who made the meme, told Battleground Baltimore. “Humans are never going to stop wanting to alter our consciousness for a good, therapeutic, or cathartic time, so let’s stop continually criminalizing people—especially those already targeted by the racist war on drugs. If we have to play this incrementalism game, then let’s decriminalize paraphernalia first—we’ll ease people into the idea and go for drug decrim [decriminalization] next. Plus this meme is iconic.”

Brandon Soderberg

Brandon Soderberg is a Baltimore-based writer reporting on guns, drugs, and police corruption. He is the coauthor of I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. Formerly, he was the editor-in-chief of the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in The Intercept, VICE, The Appeal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @notrivia.