Maryland Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) 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 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 addiction.
Morhaim, 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 next 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, the incidence of 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 U.S. 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 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.”