After Maryland legislators announced they would not be voting to decriminalize drug paraphernalia, the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition announced they were “grieving this horrifying decision.”

Grief is meant literally here. As Battleground Baltimore reported last week, for people who use drugs, their ability to use without fear of overdose has dramatically decreased in recent years, and decriminalizing paraphernalia such as syringes, needles, and cookers seriously reduces overdoses. That’s not speculation—it’s a fact

Here’s another fact: There were over 100,000 fatal overdoses nationwide in 2020. 

In Maryland, possession of paraphernalia used to inject drugs can mean as much as four years in prison—much more than drug possession, which can lead to up to one year in prison.

When it isn’t against the law to have them, people who use drugs are more apt to carry syringes and keep them rather than throw them away. Because paraphernalia is illegal, 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—as described in Battleground Baltimore’s story last week, “They Want Us Dead”—which also reduces overdose.

In Maryland, possession of paraphernalia used to inject drugs can mean as much as four years in prison—much more than drug possession, which can lead to up to one year in prison. It will remain this way for at least another year.

It didn’t have to be this way. During the last legislative session, a Senate Bill to decriminalize paraphernalia passed. But it was vetoed by Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who wrongly claimed that decriminalization would encourage drug use. Hogan has consistently opposed any drug policy that isn’t carceral or treatment-based. This is why activists and advocates, including the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, have mobilized to push for state-level Democrats to simply overturn Hogan’s veto during the special session that began on Monday, Dec. 6.

“At a time when Baltimore’s overdose rate is among the highest in the nation, it is clear that we need to use every tool in the prevention toolbox, including decriminalization,” Rajani Gudlavalleti of Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition told Battleground Baltimore last week.

During the last session, after passing the decriminalization of paraphernalia bill, state Senate President Bill Ferguson said, “The War on Drugs has failed… We have destroyed segments of our society. If we do not have a new approach to drugs we will continue down the same path.”

At the start of the special legislative session on Dec. 6, however, Ferguson announced that the decision over whether or not to decriminalize paraphernalia would be “postponed indefinitely.” A significant and self-evident way to begin to end the war on drugs was deferred. This angered harm reduction advocates, who see in decriminalizing paraphernalia an easy way to save hundreds of lives each year. Politicians, meanwhile, appear to see a potential wrong move during an election year, leaving people who use drugs out of luck.

“At a time when Baltimore’s overdose rate is among the highest in the nation, it is clear that we need to use every tool in the prevention toolbox, including decriminalization.”

Rajani Gudlavalleti of Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition

“Senate President Bill Ferguson indefinitely postponed any discussion of action on [decriminalizing paraphernalia],” Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition announced in a statement. “This means our state representatives won’t have to be on the record as caring or not caring about the lives and loved ones of people who use drugs.”

As Battleground Baltimore reported last week, the bill to decriminalize paraphernalia was the only substantive bill from the last session that would have significantly addressed the overdose crisis in Maryland.

Ferguson told Maryland Matters that decriminalizing paraphernalia is something that will be revisited in the next session, which starts up in January. He called it “a really complex issue” and said that the state Senate “really want[s] to make sure it’s done the right way.”

Ferguson’s explanations on behalf of the Democrats are the same ones that Marylanders advocating for smarter, less harmful drug policy have heard before. Back in June of 2019, for instance, Ferguson described cannabis legalization as “really, really complicated,” and said that the issue of racial equity and cannabis legalization needed to be addressed and would need more time.

Ferguson was the co-chair of the Maryland General Assembly’s Marijuana Legalization Workgroup, and spent the rest of 2019 working out recommendations on whether to legalize cannabis or not. The workgroup landed on not legalizing. Going into 2020, there was little action on cannabis policy at all. A bill to increase the decriminalization threshold for cannabis from 10 grams to one ounce was introduced, but it did not pass.

In 2021, state Delegate Jazz Lewis, a Democrat, introduced a legalization bill that would also expunge cannabis convictions, release those incarcerated for cannabis, and use part of the tax revenue it generates to assist minority communities. There was a similar bill in the state Senate. Neither passed.

In 2022, it is more likely that cannabis legalization will finally happen at the state level.

“While I have personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization,” Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne Jones said over the summer.

Until legalization happens, however, the number of Marylanders whose lives have been damaged by cannabis charges continues to grow. In 2019, for example, nearly 15,000 Marylanders were arrested for cannabis possession.

In Baltimore, Maryland’s cannabis decriminalization dramatically reduced the number of drug arrests. In 2014, there were 13,356 drug arrests in Baltimore. In 2015, the first full year of decriminalization, there were 6,604 arrests. By 2020, that number had been reduced to 1,348, also thanks to a Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office COVID-19 policy to no longer prosecute drug possession.

Racial disparities still persist in Baltimore—post-decriminalization, 96% of cannabis possession charges were brought against Black people—but the results across the state are even more troubling.

In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union released “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” which showed that even in Maryland, where 10 grams or less is decriminalized and there is medicinal cannabis industry, 50% of the state’s drug arrests are for cannabis, and a Black person is 2.1 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than a white person. While Maryland was overall lower than the national average—nationally, a Black person is 3.6 times more likely to be busted for weed than a white person—17 of Maryland’s 24 counties have a racial disparity rate that’s higher than 3.6.

Defending the “indefinite postponement” of paraphernalia decriminalization, Ferguson also told Maryland Matters there was no vote because the issue of overdose prevention will be a focus of the next session. He suggested that more ambitious interventions such as safe consumption sites—places where someone can go to safely use their drugs without fear of arrest and under supervision—will be taken seriously.

The bill to decriminalize paraphernalia was the only substantive bill from the last session that would have significantly addressed the overdose crisis in Maryland.

That safe consumption sites will be on the table as soon as January, when Ferguson and fellow Democrats couldn’t band together right now to simply overturn a veto when they absolutely had the votes, is hard to believe. Legislation allowing the establishment of safe consumption sites—or as they’ve come to be known among Maryland advocates, “overdose prevention sites”—has been introduced in some form every year since 2015, and has failed every time.

On Wednesday, Dec. 8, as first reported by Maryland Matters’ Hannah Gaskill, Democratic state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier announced that she now supported decriminalizing paraphernalia and told Ferguson to bring it forward for a vote. Within hours, however, it was explained that Maryland Senate rules do not allow for a vote once a bill has been “postponed indefinitely.”

Harm reduction advocates, then, continue to grieve and look towards the 2022 session.

While Maryland legislators work a little longer to figure out racial equity and cannabis legalization, the city of Evanston, Illinois, for example, is enacting a cannabis “reparations” plan in which cannabis tax sales go to supporting legacy Black residents of the Chicago suburb. 

18 states have legalized, regulated cannabis.

Last week, two safe consumption sites opened up in New York City. On the first day they opened, its staff reversed two overdoses. Rhode Island is also set to open pilot safe consumption sites.

There were 2,799 fatal overdoses in Maryland in 2020.

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.