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Unlike some states that have decriminalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, residents of Maryland and Washington, D.C., still face potential misdemeanor and felony charges if caught possessing and/or selling marijuana and other controlled substances. The penalties are even stiffer if the offense involves violation of federal drug laws.

Generally speaking, federal drug convictions focus on trafficking, as opposed to local and state arrests largely revolving around possession. A person convicted of a federal drug offense faces harsh penalties and potentially long prison sentences. By contrast, a person found guilty under state law for “simple possession” (with no intent to sell or distribute a drug) will likely be charged with a misdemeanor, facing a short jail term, a fine and/or probation.

Marijuana Possession

Penalties for marijuana possession in Washington, D.C., illustrate the differences between state and federal drug laws. As Josh Kramer, writing in Washington City Paper, notes, ” walking around smoking pot or holding a lit joint or pipe would be a misdemeanor akin to drinking in public, earning you up to 60 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.”

Similar behavior while visiting a park administered by the National Park Service will result in more significant penalties. Since 2009, Kramer says, “more than 27,000 people have been cited for smoking on U.S. property” – with punishment of up to six months in a federal prison and/or fines as high as $5,000.

Arrests & Bookings

Jurisdiction and jail bookings also differ between states and the federal government. If you’re arrested by a federal agent, you get booked at a federal facility.

An individual arrested by county, local or state police is usually booked in a local police department and held inside a county jail. State laws for a drug offense apply only in the state where a crime was allegedly committed. Federal laws are enforceable in any state.

Maryland Marijuana Laws

In Maryland, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning it’s regarded as having a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical value. As noted, possession is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. (A state law passed in April 2014, decriminalizes simple possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana, making it a civil offense, not a criminal one. The law goes into effect on October 1, 2014.)

A felony conviction for cultivating marijuana plants or selling marijuana in the state can (depending upon the amount) result in fines ranging from $15,000 to $100,000, with five years to as much as 20 years spent behind bars.

Drug conviction penalties in Washington, D.C., are similarly structured for misdemeanor (simple possession) and felony (cultivation and/or intent to sell) drug crimes.

The federal Controlled Substances Act recognizes no difference between the medical and recreational use of marijuana. Penalties increase from an initial conviction for possession (up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine) to the second conviction (maximum of two years in prison and potential fine of $2,500) and subsequent convictions (maximum of three years behind bars and a fine up to $5,000).

With stiff penalties like these, anyone accused of a federal drug crime should obtain the best legal representation he or she can find.