City prosecutors to stop pursuing cannabis possession cases, will vacate thousands of convictions

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Ninety-six out of 100 people arrested for cannabis possession in Baltimore from 2015-2017 were black, data from the FBI show. Graphic by Charlie Herrick

Marilyn Mosby has added Baltimore to a growing list of major cities adopting a more progressive approach to policing cannabis, announcing today that her office will no longer pursue cases for possession, and that they’ll also seek to vacate thousands of convictions dating back to 2011.

Under a new set of policies, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office will no longer prosecute possession cases, “regardless of weight or a person’s prior criminal record,” and will only prosecute cases for distribution or intent to distribute “as long as there is articulated evidence of intent to distribute beyond the mere fact of possession,” Mosby said at a press conference this morning at the Center for Urban Families.

Her office will also seek to vacate nearly 5,000 previous convictions dating back to 2011, she said. And moving forward, anyone charged with felony possession or felony possession with intent to distribute for the first time will be referred to the SAO’s Aim to B’More program, which gives non-violent, felony drug offenders an alternative option from incarceration.

The announcement comes almost exactly one month after Baltimore Fishbowl, in collaboration with the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Brandon Soderberg and data researcher Andy Friedman, reported that police have continued to arrests hundreds of Baltimoreans–almost all of them African-American–for misdemeanor cannabis possession since Maryland decriminalized having less than 10 grams in 2015.

Our reporting found that 96 percent of all arrestees for misdemeanor weed possession from 2015-2017 were black, despite numerous studies pointing to nearly equal usage rates among whites and people of color, and that among almost 3,200 misdemeanor possession charges recorded in the city during that period, the vast majority of them occurred in primarily black zip codes.

Under Maryland law since 2014, a person can be charged with misdemeanor possession for being caught with anywhere from 10 grams to 50 pounds of cannabis. Possession of less than 10 grams warrants a fine of $100. Intent to distribute, which is dependent on other factors like the arrestee having packaging paraphernalia, carries more severe penalties.

During a speech today, Mosby said cannabis possession has proven to be a waste of law enforcement resources in Baltimore—particularly with more than 300 people being murdered in each of the last two years, and clearance rates for homicide cases of 31 percent in 2017 and 26 percent in 2018—and a crime that has disproportionately affected communities of color.

“I refuse to stand by and be a facilitator of injustice and inequity when it is clear that we can be so much smarter and do so much more on behalf of the people that we serve,” Mosby said. She added that there is “no link” between marijuana possession and violent crime, and that the 10 states (plus D.C.) that have legalized adult recreational use in full have not seen upticks in violence as a result.

“When I ask myself, Is the enforcement and prosecution of marijuana possession making us safer as a city?, the answer is emphatically no. There is no public safety value in prosecuting marijuana possession.”

She also noted that police and prosecutors’ pursuit of marijuana arrests erodes public trust in law enforcement, particularly as homicides remain a near-daily occurrence.

The SAO has released a white paper detailing its rationale for the policy changes, and citing Fishbowl/BINJ’s reporting, along with internal SAO stats that note prosecutors dropped 88 percent of simple possession cases (1,001 out of 1,128) since 2014.

The city’s top prosecutor, now in her second term, also said she will propose legislation in Annapolis to give prosecutors the power to vacate convictions on their own (rather than having to ask a magistrate). And, she said, she’ll be pushing city lawmakers and the Baltimore Police Department to make similar changes de-prioritizing cannabis as a law enforcement issue, and providing forgiveness to convicts and arrestees for “crimes that are no longer illegal.”

In an interview with The New York Times, to whom Mosby gave the exclusive to announce the sweeping changes, she said she had informed Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle of her plans. He reportedly told her he would not tell the rank and file to stop arresting people for possessing weed, arguing it “drives violent crime.”

He released a statement this afternoon confirming that arrests will continue “unless and until the state legislature changes the applicable laws.” Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office told the paper she backs Tuggle’s position.

Pugh explained her stance further in a statement Tuesday evening, saying she supports Mosby’s plan to halt the “unnecessary criminalization of those who possess marijuana merely for personal use.” However, the mayor added, “we also need to understand that those who deal illegal substances fuel criminality in our neighborhoods which leads to violence. We cannot, nor will we, let-up in our efforts to eliminate violent crime at its source.”

Photo by Sam Sutch, via Wikimedia Commons

Cannabis has been legal for medical use in Maryland since 2014, though the state’s highly regulated industry didn’t hit the ground running until December of 2017. It’s since exploded, with around 70 dispensaries up and running statewide so far, and sales almost topping $100 million last year.

Even so, recreational use remains illegal, and a concerted push by Democrats in the legislature to put it up to a ballot referendum for voters hasn’t materialized.

Olivia Naugle, legislative coordinator for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, made the case that “it’s time for Maryland to legalize, tax and regulate” cannabis for adult use, and expunge criminal records for any past convictions. She nodded to the 10 states and D.C. that have done so.

At the same presser, ACLU of Maryland executive director Dana Vickers Shelley pointed out that the civil rights organization has been investigating the disproportionate impact of criminalized cannabis on communities for years. The ACLU’s 2013 report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” exposed that Baltimore City had one of the highest cannabis-possession arrest rates in the country at the time, and that African-Americans in the city were nearly six times as likely to be arrested for having weed.

“The situation is clear,” she said. “Even though studies show that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, black Marylanders are consistently arrested at higher rates for marijuana in every county in Maryland.”

Vickers Shelley also said it’s incumbent on law enforcement leaders to “to commit to dismantling the racial bias inherent in the drug war, not just treat race disparities as an afterthought.”

Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the African-American think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, noted that even introducing someone to the criminal justice system with a cannabis arrest exposes that individual to more potential interactions with police further down the line.

Individuals are “snatched out of their communities, sucked into the criminal justice system” for having cannabis, he said.

Halting prosecutions and offering expungements or vacations to those who have been charged or convicted for possession is a solid start, he argued.

“This is a policy that helps to begin to address the harm that has been done in our communities.”

This story has been updated.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
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