Federal marijuana policy in question as more states vote for legalization

Efforts to legalize and decriminalize marijuana in various states, including Maryland, is creating conflicts at the federal level.

In early November, voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. elected to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in their states, following the lead of Colorado and Washington state, which had done so in 2012. The fact that four states and the District of Columbia will now permit the possession and use of small amounts of the drug has placed more pressure on the federal government to review its marijuana policies.

As the Baltimore Sun reported, these ballot measures came about a month after Maryland's state legislature decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana to help refocus law enforcement officers' attention on more serious matters like violent crime rather than minor drug offenses.

State versus federal policy

One of the highly touted benefits of marijuana legalization and decriminalization has been that states would be able to collect taxes from dispensaries. However, USA Today reports that under current Internal Revenue Service tax code rules dating back to the War on Drugs of the 1980s, the U.S. federal government stands to make more money in taxes from these "pot shops" than the businesses themselves, creating a difficult hurdle for those who want to break into the marijuana dispensary sector.

The effect is that the federal government is now undermining many legal marijuana businesses, and the IRS lacks the authority to cease enforcing the law without the approval of Congress. With gridlock at an all-time high, it is difficult to pass any type of law at the federal level - much less something as controversial as a drug-related tax code issue. For now, marijuana dispensaries are unable to claim many of the deductions for business expenses available to most other companies in the U.S.

Another interesting aspect of this issue adding another level of complexity is that because the states legalizing recreational marijuana are in the West, the federal government owns about 640 million acres of land in places where the drug is now legal. In fact, according to the Washington Post, it owns about 55 percent of the land where legalization is now in effect, which may force the U.S. Department of Justice's hand in revising its policies.

For now, the administration of President Barack Obama continues to oppose legalization, with an official White House statement declaring that widespread use of the drug will run counter to efforts to improve public health. According to the statement, the administration believes that legalization would normalize marijuana use, especially for young people, and increase drug dependency and addiction.

Knowing the law in Maryland

It is important to note that it is not technically illegal to use marijuana in public in the state of Maryland. In fact, while bar and restaurant owners may face fines for allowing patrons to smoke tobacco products in their facilities, there are no such restrictions for smoking marijuana. However, it is still illegal to possess any amount of marijuana here, although the possession of 10 grams or less is punishable by only a $100 fine. Individuals may face misdemeanor or felony charges if they are accused of possession with the intent to distribute.

As Maryland and states across the country continue to implement significant changes to their marijuana policies, it is possible that possession and recreational use of the drug will see more widespread acceptance on the part of law enforcement agencies and the general public. But if you've been arrested for a drug crime and are facing serious charges, contact a skilled Baltimore criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

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