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Marijuana possession no longer prosecuted in Baltimore, State's Attorney's Office announces

Posted: 1:33 PM, Jan 29, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-30 11:05:58Z
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BALTIMORE — The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases, regardless of the amount possessed, State’s Attorney Maryland Mosby announced at a press conference Tuesday.

“It’s a new day in Baltimore, and I believe this is the time that we make real that we seek justice over convictions,” said Mosby, “that we make right the wrongs of the past, and to make Baltimore a leader in redefining public safety.”

Possession arrests will not be charged regardless of weight or criminal history of the person arrested, Mosby said. Possession with the intent to distribute will only be prosecuted if additional evidence is presented – scales, baggies or other tools of packaging and selling drugs, or officer testimony of witnessing drug sales, etc. First time drug distribution offenders will be referred to the Aim to B’more diversion program rather than incarceration. The program is a three-year probation before judgment course that attempts to help offenders avoid rearrest and add value to their communities through service, job readiness, workforce development, and life skills coaching, according to the State’s Attorney’s website.

“If someone is arrested for simple marijuana possession, we will release them without charges,” Mosby said.

The Baltimore City Police Department is not on the same page as the State's Attorney's Office it seems though, releasing a statement Tuesday afternoon saying, "Baltimore Police will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession." The state decriminalized possession of fewer than 10 grams of marijuana in 2014, making possession a civil infraction like a traffic ticket

Citing historic trends of disproportionate enforcement on poor and minority communities, current public opinions about marijuana, a better allocation of law enforcement resources, and the incredible burden a marijuana possession arrest presents to future employment and life prospects, thus contributing to economic decline and crime in the city, Mosby joins a growing trend of urban chief prosecutors changing their stance on marijuana prosecution.

“For far too long we have sat back and idly watched certain communities and families literally destroyed by the failed policies of the so called war on drugs,” Mosby said. “The effects of these failed policies have been especially dire for cities like Baltimore where for decades we have criminalized what is now nationally considered a public health crisis. The statistics are damning when it comes to the disproportionate impact the war on drugs as had on communities of color.”

Mosby cited statistics provided by the American Civil Liberties Union that highlight the steep racial disparity in marijuana prosecutions. In 2010, 58 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Maryland were of black people, yet the black community represented just 30% of the state’s population, according to the ACLU’s stats. Nationally, black people were four-times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession that year, whereas black people were six times more likely to face a possession arrest than their white counterparts in Baltimore City.

The move to decriminalize possession of fewer than 10 grams did not change the disproportionate patterns, according to the ACLU’s data. In 2015, 85 percent of civil citations for marijuana possession were given to black people in Baltimore, Mosby said, ticking up to 94 percent in 2016, and 95 percent in 2017. Baltimore’s population is roughly 60 percent black.

“Even though white and black residents use marijuana at roughly the same rates, marijuana arrests continued to be disproportionately enforced on people of color in this city,” Mosby said.

That historical disparity prompted the state’s attorney’s office to file a writ of coram in Maryland courts to vacate 1,050 marijuana possession convictions from circuit court and 3,778 convictions from district court. Mosby said they could only go back to 2011 to review such cases. Mosby’s office is also lobbying the state legislature to give prosecutors the power to vacate such convictions “in the interest of justice.”

In a city frequently debating the vast budget allocation to the police department, and the frequent reliance on overtime usage largely due to a lack of recruiting and staffing enough officers, all while the population continues to suffer from historic violent crime trends, Mosby’s office made the case that law enforcement should not be spending time and resources on marijuana arrests and prosecution.

“There is no public safety value in prosecuting marijuana possession,” Mosby said. “Further more, there is no link between marijuana possession and violent crime, as is illustrated by more than half of the state’s across this nation that now legalize marijuana in some form and yet violent crime has not risen.”

She also tied the disproportionate enforcement of such laws on minority and poor communities to the deterioration of the relationship between city residents and the police.

“Law enforcement pays a steep cost in the form of public trust when we spend resources on jailing people for marijuana yet simultaneously fail to solve and successfully prosecute homicides,” Mosby said. The city suffered 343 murders in 2017, with a clearance rate of 34 percent, Mosby said. In 2018, murders fell to 3016, but the clearance rate also dipped to 26%.

“No one who is serious about public safety can honestly say that spending resources to jail people for marijuana is a good use for our limited time and money,” Mosby said. “If you don’t believe me, ask a mother who has lost her son to gun violence, whether she wants law enforcement to spend their time and their resources prosecuting her son’s killer, or rather she would have us spend our time and our resources on jailing individuals in possession of marijuana.”

Mayor Catherine Pugh also released a statement on the proposed decriminalization of marijuana in Baltimore:

We need to commit our full efforts and resources to get violent criminals off our streets. It's important that we look at common sense approaches to laws governing personal possession of marijuana, as cities across the nation have done on the East and West Coasts, including New York, Philadelphia, St.Louis and Reno. I am supportive of what State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby is attempting to address, namely the unnecessary criminalization of those who possess marijuana merely for personal use. But at the same time, 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. I want to urge our legislative colleagues to look carefully at these issues and at best practices underway elsewhere, in collaboration with the State’s Attorney and law enforcement leadership to determine an approach that is unified, consistent in its application and in the best interests of our communities.

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