Possession of a Controlled Substance in Maryland

The basics of Maryland's drug possession laws and penalties.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated August 17, 2023

All states, including Maryland, regulate and control the possession of controlled dangerous substances, though each state differs in its exact definitions and the penalties for drug possession. Maryland classifies not only well-known drugs like meth, heroin, and cocaine as controlled dangerous substances but also the compounds used to manufacture them.

This article reviews Maryland's classifications of controlled dangerous substances and the penalties for illegal possession (personal use only). Possession of drugs for sale or distribution carries harsher penalties.

How Does Maryland Classify Controlled Dangerous Substances?

Maryland classifies controlled substances into five schedules (I to V), according to their potential for abuse and accepted medical use. Schedule I lists the most dangerous drugs, which have a high probability of abuse and addiction, and no recognized medical value. Schedules II to V decrease in dangerousness and probability of abuse and increase in recognized medical uses.

What Are the Penalties for Illegal Drug Possession in Maryland?

Maryland law makes it illegal to possess, administer to another, purchase, or have under one's control a controlled dangerous substance without a prescription from a licensed physician. Unlike sale crimes, possession offenses carry the same penalties regardless of drug schedule (with cannabis being an exception).

Penalties for Illegal Possession of Drugs in MD

Possession of a controlled dangerous substance constitutes a misdemeanor. Penalties for this unlawful conduct vary depending on the offender's previous number of convictions for similar unlawful conduct.

First conviction. A defendant guilty of their first offense faces up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Second or third conviction. A second or third conviction can land a guilty offender in prison for up to 18 months and impose a $5,000 fine.

Fourth or greater conviction. A defendant guilty of a fourth or subsequent offense is subject to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Penalties for Illegal Possession of Cannabis in MD

A person who possesses over 2.5 ounces of cannabis is guilty of a misdemeanor and faces imprisonment for up to six months and a $1,000 fine. For amounts of 2.5 ounces or less of cannabis, Maryland law distinguishes between "personal use" and "civil use" amounts. Personal use includes up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis, while civil use encompasses amounts greater than 1.5 ounces and up to 2.5 ounces.

21 and older. A person who is 21 or older may legally use and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis (the personal use amount). Possession of a civil use amount is a civil offense, which carries a $250 fine.

Under 21. A person younger than 21 who uses or possesses the personal use amount of cannabis is responsible for a civil offense and subject to a $100 fine. In addition to a fine, the court may order the offender to attend a drug education program. The fine increases to $250 if a person younger than 21 has the civil use amount.

Penalties for Illegal Use of Drug Paraphernalia in MD

Maryland also makes it illegal to use or possess with intent to use certain drug paraphernalia­—items used to ingest, inhale, inject, store, conceal, or weigh illegal controlled substances. Possession of drug paraphernalia constitutes a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of a $500 fine for a first-time offense and up to two years' imprisonment and a $2,000 fine for subsequent convictions. Any person who is 18 or older and gives drug paraphernalia to a minor who is at least three years younger than they are is guilty of a misdemeanor and faces up to eight years' imprisonment and a $15,000 fine.

Is Jail Time Possible for Illegal Drug Possession in Maryland?

Yes, it's possible. However, Maryland law offers a few sentencing alternatives that could benefit first-time offenders and those charged with lower-level or nonviolent offenses.

First-time offenders. First-time offenders in Maryland may be eligible for a drug education program. In addition to completing the program, oftentimes defendants will be required to participate in a certain number of hours of community service. If a defendant successfully completes the program, the court will dismiss the underlying charges. However, failure can result in a criminal conviction and even jail time.

Probation before judgment (PBJ). When a defendant pleads guilty to a drug possession charge, a court may hold off on entering judgment, defer further proceedings, and place the defendant on probation. During that period of probation, the defendant is required to do certain things, such as participate in a drug treatment program, pay court costs and a fine, and complete community service. The greatest benefit of the PBJ opportunity is that the defendant can request to expunge the charge from their record.

Deferred prosecution. In certain cases, a prosecutor can offer to defer prosecuting the case while the defendant completes a drug treatment program. This is a far more intense program than the drug education one offered to first-time offenders. Upon successful completion of the program, the state's attorney dismisses the case. A defendant's failure of the program can lead to the state's attorney resuming prosecution of the matter.

Possible Defenses to Drug Possession Charges in Maryland

Defendants facing controlled dangerous substance charges have several defense strategies available to them.

Actual innocence. Defendants charged with a drug-related crime have the usual defenses available to all criminal defendants, such as "Someone else committed this crime," or "the alleged conduct did not occur."

Lack of knowledge. Defendants can try to show the jury that they did not have knowledge of the controlled substance being in their possession. For example, if a hitchhiker gets a ride from a passing car and the police locate a bag of heroin under the hitchhiker's seat, the defense will argue the defendant had no knowledge of the bag hidden under their seat.

Unlawful search and seizure. A common defense in drug possession cases includes asking the court to exclude evidence of the drugs at trial based on an unlawful search or seizure by police. Without evidence of the drugs, a prosecutor's case might fall apart, resulting in a reduction of charges or a dismissal altogether. Defense teams do this by scrutinizing and calling out faulty or suspect police methods used in gathering or handling the evidence.

Good Samaritan law. Maryland's Good Samaritan Law provides that any person who is experiencing a drug overdose or someone rending aid to that person should not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted for a drug possession violation.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you have been charged with a drug-related offense in Maryland, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A controlled substance conviction can become part of your permanent criminal record and negatively impact your ability to find employment or housing, as well as subject you to fines and incarceration. An experienced lawyer will discuss the circumstances unique to your situation, formulate possible defenses, and protect your constitutional rights.

(Md. Code, Crim. Law §§ 5-101, 5-601, 5-601.1, 5-619; Md. Code, Crim. Proc. §§ 1-210, 6-220, 6-229 (2023).)

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