Community groups call on Pugh to ask BPD for end to cannabis arrests

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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

A coalition of 14 community groups sent a letter to Mayor Catherine Pugh asking her to direct the police department to stop making low-level cannabis arrests, nearly a month after State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her office would no longer prosecute such cases.

In the letter, the groups wrote that as the city battles rampant violence, Mosby’s decision offers “the only sensible path toward securing public safety and restoring faith in law enforcement.

“But that path is meaningless so long as the police insist on arresting and incarcerating for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety. We need strong leadership from you to make clear that our jails should be used to keep our community safe.”

The groups, spanning organizations that represent clergy, advocates for harm reduction and other social justice causes, wrote they want a response by March 8. Mayor Pugh’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Baltimore Fishbowl.

One of the groups in the coalition, Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters United Inc. (MOMS), has placed a billboard on the back of a flat-bed truck that reads: “Mayor Pugh, stop pot arrests. Solve murders instead.”

Following Mosby’s decision, which first appeared in a The New York Times exclusive, Pugh told the paper she backed then-Acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle’s stance that his officers would continue making arrests until state law is changed.

She later explained in a statement that she supported Mosby’s plan to stop criminalizing weed for personal use, but also linked drug dealing to the violent crime that plagues many city neighborhoods.

“We cannot, nor will we, let-up in our efforts to eliminate violent crime at its source,” she said.

Michael Harrison, the current acting commissioner who is seeking to be confirmed by the city council next month, said earlier this month he would discuss the policy with Mosby.

In calling for Pugh to reconsider, the groups refer to data compiled by Baltimore Fishbowl and the Baltimore Institute of Nonprofit Journalism that show, in the years since the decriminalization of cannabis in 2014, arrests for possession have remained disproportionately black. Ninety-six percent of the people whose most serious charge was pot possession were African-American, according to FBI figures.

“This is particularly egregious because we have long known that white and Black Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rates,” the groups wrote. “How could this injustice not create conflict? It is no wonder that tensions between Baltimore police and Black communities remain persistently high.”

Using data from Baltimore police, Baltimore Fishbowl and the Baltimore Institute of Nonprofit Journalism found that most of the 3,200 cannabis-related charges filed from 2015-2017 occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods.

“What the evidence that you have here shows is that no matter where you are in Baltimore, if you are black, you’re gonna be policed differently,” said Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland.

In addition to calling on prosecutors to stop pursuing cannabis possession cases, Mosby said her office would vacate nearly 5,000 previous convictions dating back to 2011.

But a new analysis by Courthouse News Service shows this is proving to be complicated. Using a randomized sample of 10 percent of cases Mosby’s office is seeking to have expunged, the news service found nearly half the defendants “had at least one conviction for a violent crime either prior or subsequent to pleading guilty to pot possession.”

Brandon Weigel

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