ANNAPOLIS -- The guy goes down to the corner to buy some drugs. He hands over money, and the dealer passes him a bag of what looks like marijuana or cocaine but is actually something else, perhaps parsley or flour.
Is the buyer guilty of a crime or innocent?
"Guilty," the House of Delegates decided yesterday, passing a bill that would make it a misdemeanor, subject to a $500 fine, a year in jail, or both, "to possess or purchase a non-controlled fTC substance that the person reasonably believes to be a controlled dangerous substance."
The bill was pushed through the House, 92-34, as a means of helping police stage "sting" operations to catch drug buyers without having to offer the real thing as bait.
A court would have to determine whether the purchased substance was "packaged in a manner normally used for the illegal distribution" of drugs; if it was purchased for a price "substantially greater than the reasonable value of the non-controlled substance"; and if the physical appearance of the substance was enough like the actual drug.
Using real drugs in a sting operation poses several problems, said Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Most troublesome of all, the buyer could manage to get away with the drugs and then "the narcotics are on the street," Mr. Arnick told the House.
Or, he said, the buyer could immediately consume the drug.
Another possibility, he added, is that the police officers themselves might be unable to resist skimming some of the illegal drug for themselves before attempting to sell the rest to someone else.
The issue arose in Maryland when police in Prince George's County and in other jurisdictions used fake drugs in sting operations only to see the arrests thrown out of court by judges who said no crime had been committed.
Opponents complained yesterday that the bill allowed police to arrest someone just for "thinking" they were buying drugs rather than for actually buying drugs.
"You should call this the 'Jimmy Carter Special-Lusting in My Heart' bill," complained Delegate Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore. "This bill smacks of convicting people depending on what their thoughts are."
Delegate Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, agreed: "I think this is a broad step, convicting people of something they don't even have."
"We're passing a law that says, 'If you possess parsley, or possess flour, you could be convicted of possessing marijuana or cocaine.'
"That is a very serious charge," he said.