BALTIMORE — When Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her office’s new policy to no longer prosecute marijuana possession crimes, the focus was on the mandate’s affect on future criminal justice cases, but the move may have a similarly large impact on past criminal records.
When Mosby announced the new prerogative on Jan. 29, she also spoke of filing a petition in state courts to vacate nearly 5,000 marijuana possession convictions going back to 2011.
A “writ of error coram nobis” was filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, looking to vacate possession of marijuana convictions in 1,050 cases going back to 2000. Such a document advocates for the court to correct it’s original judgment due the discovery of a fundamental error that was not part of the record during the original ruling.
The State’s Attorney’s Office points out “contemporary attitudes and public policy toward marijuana have changed dramatically in the past few year” in its filing. The writ also lays out a long history of bias and discrimination in enforcing drug laws in Maryland, arguing this new perspective provides the grounds to correct the actions of a criminal justice system caught in the “war on drugs” that disproportionately penalized minorities and nonviolent offenders and is out of step with modern views.
Mosby’s filing tracks the prohibition of marijuana back to it’s origins as a “xenophobic campaign of government-sponsored fear mongering against new immigrants,” according to the writ. Originally tied to Mexican culture, anti-marijuana positions were quickly tied into anti-immigrant rhetoric, and, by 1931, 29 states had laws that outlawed possessing marijuana.
The seeds of an eventual national conversation that would push for the outright prohibition of the drug and consequential penalties for those who use, sell, or possess it found it’s champion in the early 1930s in Harry Anslinger, the former commissioner of the newly formed National Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger further tied the drug’s use to, “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers,” according to the writ, saying marijuana usage produced “Satanic” music and dance. “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” Anslinger is quoted as saying in the document.
By 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively outlawing the substance by imposing outsized taxes on it’s sale, possession and transfer. By 1970, Congress repealed this act, just to replace it with the Controlled Substances Act that classified marijuana as a “Schedule I drug,” on par with heroin and cocaine.
After laying out the controversial history of the country’s anti-drug legislative campaign, the writ goes on to cite constitutional freedoms and past Supreme Court precedent, arguing that the very laws meant to enforce prohibition instead curb personal liberties and disproportionately harm minorities.
Referencing past Supreme Court language noting how the history of narcotics legislation enforcement was meant to “turn the screws of criminal machinery” tighter, Mosby argues “recent history has incontrovertibly established that the ‘turning of the screw’ during the ‘war on drugs’ has been applied disproportionately tighter against the African-American community.” Focusing on the adjudication of marijuana laws in Maryland specifically, Mosby points out recent disparities.
“From 2001-2010, African Americans in Maryland were almost three times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession,” the writ said. “For the same period, African-Americans in Baltimore City were 5.6 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Yet research indicates that marijuana usage is roughly the same across all races of people.”
In 2010, while black people represented 30% of the state’s population, they made up 58% of it’s marijuana possession arrests, according to statistics from Mosby’s office. The disparity was larger in the city, where a black resident was 5.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than his white counterpart.
After the state decriminalized possession of fewer than 10 grams of the drug, making such offenses criminal citations, black residents still comprised the majority of these tickets. In 2015, 44 citations were issued in the city, 39 of which were to black residents, the writ states. Of the 199 citations issued in 2016, 187 went to black Baltimoreans. In 2017, 431 tickets were administered, with 410 administered to black city residents.
Mosby goes on to elucidate the harm this policing has created, and how that manifests in economic limitation and reputational harm to both charged individuals and the black community in total, arguing these “‘significant collateral consequences’ exist such as to warrant coram nobis relief."
“In additional to reputational harm,” the writ argues, “research has identified an array of other collateral consequences that flow from criminal conviction: denial of eligibility for government benefits, significant social and psychological difficulties, public housing eligibility, use of criminal history by private landlords as a screening device, convictions operating as a de facto basis for job denial, and for those convicted individuals who are employed, much lower earnings than individuals without a conviction.”
“Contemporary attitudes and public policy towards recreational use of marijuana,” Mosby’s writ states, “the grossly disproportionate impact on the African-American community of enforcement of possession of marijuana laws as well as the ongoing significant collateral consequences flowing from same strongly militate in favor of granting coram nobis relief in these cases.”