The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, Inc. unveils priorities for session Wednesday, January 25 in Annapolis, Maryland. Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland Chair Jheanelle K. Wilkins, a Democrat who represents District 20 which includes Montgomery County in the House of Delegates speaks during the press conference. Photo by Matt Bush/WYPR.

For the first time in 53 years, members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland will be voting on bills under the state’s first Black governor, Wes Moore. The Legislative Black Caucus was founded in 1970 by 17 legislators who tasked themselves to ensure that Black residents in Maryland were “equally protected and befitted by the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as promised by the U.S. Constitution.

Decades later, its membership has grown to 64 legislators, a third of Maryland’s entire General Assembly. Its members claim it’s among the largest caucus of its kind nationwide. Gov. Moore’s victory last fall was not only historic as the third Black person elected governor in U.S. history, but the Democrat is working with a friendly majority of lawmakers pushing similar priorities, including caucus members.

Among the priorities for Black Caucus members this year is implementing the legalization of recreational marijuana, which was approved by Maryland voters during the same election that Moore won. Lawmakers say they want to ensure that legalization unfolds equitably, not just left to market forces.

“We have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that Black people across Maryland who have borne the brunt of the criminalization under prohibition are now put in a position where their damage is restored and we create no more future harm,” said Baltimore Democratic State Sen. Jill Carter during a press conference late Wednesday morning in Annapolis.

Carter listed three areas of focus for bills this session: ensuring Black residents can equitably participate in the new legal industry, removing criminal penalties for possession, and eliminating so-called ‘odor searches’ by law enforcement.

“As marijuana will be legal, [our bill would] make it illegal activity for law enforcement officers to continue to use it as a pretext, the odor of marijuana which is an intangible thing, to use it as a pretext to stop and search anyone,” Carter said.

Maryland courts have been divided on this issue, she noted. Just last year, Maryland’s Court of Appeals ruled officers could stop someone based on the scent of marijuana in the air, but had to end that stop if they could not quickly determine whether they possessed more than 10 grams of the drug — the definition of illegal possession at that time.

Two years prior, the state high court – now named the Maryland Supreme Court after voters approved a referendum calling for the switch – ruled police could not arrest anyone simply for smelling of marijuana.

Carter says without new clarification, Black residents will continue to be stopped and searched by law enforcement at higher numbers.

Read more at WYPR.