Two Baltimore-area lawmakers plan to introduce legislation in Annapolis that would decriminalize small amounts of all illicit drugs — from cocaine to crack to heroin — and provide new options for addicts to shoot up safely and seek treatment.
The legislation, sponsors said, would free up police resources and reduce incarceration rates by treating low-level drug users like patients rather than criminals. It would force hospitals to provide on-demand substance abuse treatment in emergency rooms and reduce overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases by creating facilities where addicts can consume drugs safely under medical supervision, they said.
One proposed bill would establish pilot programs to test whether crime could be further reduced by providing pharmaceutical-grade heroin directly to repeat criminal offenders who have consistently failed to recover from addiction through existing treatment options.
Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and physician who is sponsoring the bills, said such progressive programs, modeled off international successes, are needed to address the rising rate of opioid and other overdose deaths across the state in recent years.
"The status quo isn't working," Morhaim said, because treating addicts as criminals and drugs as an illicit commodity fuels the profitability of the drug trade and undercuts the ability of addicts to find employment when they return to their communities after incarceration or recovery.
"I understand these ideas may appear somewhat controversial, and these are ideas that have evolved in my own thinking," Morhaim said. "But I think there is a widespread consensus now that what we've been doing in the war on drugs isn't working. … It's time to take a look at other options."
The proposals come as the General Assembly is considering a range of criminal justice reforms after tensions around policing in Baltimore were highlighted by the death of Freddie Gray and the rioting, looting and arson that erupted in parts of Baltimore in April.
Recent studies indicate there are an estimated 19,000 heroin users in Baltimore, including roughly 9,500 chronic users, and the issue has attracted additional attention as overdoses have increased significantly in the state's suburbs. A task force established by Gov. Larry Hogan to study the issue has recommended expanded access to treatment, tighter monitoring of prescription drugs and greater focus on groups like inmates and ex-offenders.
Morhaim's bills, also sponsored by Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam — a Democrat and registered nurse who represents parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County — go well beyond the recommendations of the governor's task force, and their chances of passing are uncertain.
Law enforcement officials have historically been opposed to decriminalization efforts, and some say decreased drug policing in Baltimore could lead to increased violent crime and other social problems. The decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, considered far less addictive than heroin and other drugs, took years to get through the legislature before being passed in 2014.
T.J. Smith, a Baltimore police spokesman, said he hadn't seen the proposed legislation but pointed out that police Commissioner Kevin Davis "has been rather clear that the efforts of our officers should be focused on violent repeat offenders and not on those with drug addiction problems."
Morhaim said his bills have support from many others, including Beth McGinty, a deputy director of the Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Christopher Welsh, medical director of the University of Maryland Medical Center's Substance Abuse Consultation Service; and Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore police major who is executive director of the drug reform organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Dr. Bankole Johnson, chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, wrote a letter in support of the safe injection facilities and providing pharmaceutical-grade heroin to chronic users, saying the school's Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse "would seriously consider" establishing such pilot programs.