BALTIMORE — The state's attorney in Baltimore will no longer prosecute any marijuana possession cases, regardless of the quantity of the drug or an individual's prior criminal record, authorities announced Jan. 29, 2019.
Marilyn Mosby, the city's top prosecutor, said marijuana possession cases have no public safety value, erode public trust in law enforcement, and intensify existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system since arrests disproportionately occur in communities of color.
Mosby's office will still go after dealers and traffickers by prosecuting marijuana distribution cases. But officials said the money and energy prosecuting any type of simple possession case could now be redirected to address more significant crimes in a U.S. city grappling with chronically high violent crime rates and no shortage of dangerous drug syndicates.
“No one who is serious about public safety can honestly say that spending resources to jail people for marijuana use is a smart way to use our limited time and money,” she said.
Meanwhile, her office will seek to vacate some 5,000 marijuana possession convictions stretching back to 2011. She described jailing people for marijuana possession as a “vast and ongoing moral failure” even as the drug remains illegal in Maryland.
“Law enforcement pays a steep cost in the form of public trust when we spend resources on things like marijuana and simultaneously fail to solve and successfully prosecute homicides,” she said.
Police Threaten to Continue Arrests
Mosby's decision puts her at odds with the city's police force.
In a brief statement Jan. 29, 2019, Baltimore's acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle stressed that officers “will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession.”
When asked what she would do if police presented her with a marijuana possession arrest in coming days, Mosby didn't mince words: “We will release them without charges.”
It's been roughly five years since Maryland's governor signed 2014 legislation that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis. The law was designed to improve public safety by freeing police officers to focus on more serious threats.
Yet Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, said black citizens are consistently arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than white citizens in every state county even though their rates of usage are similar. She urged the Baltimore Police Department to “take heed of this policy for change.”
In recent weeks, the online publication Baltimore Fishbowl collaborated with data researchers to examine misdemeanor possession charges for 2015, 2016, and 2017. It found that roughly 96 percent of the 1,448 adults and 66 juveniles arrested by Baltimore police for cannabis possession during those years were black.
Mosby's announcement was met with enthusiasm by advocates of harm reduction strategies such as decriminalizing drugs and syringe access.
“Our hope now is that she goes beyond this and supports legislation to decriminalize all drug possession so we can pursue a public health approach to drug use and end the wasteful and unjust war on drugs,” said Tricia Christensen, legislative advocacy coordinator with Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.
For years, prosecutors' offices across the country have been reconsidering marijuana prosecution policies and their impact on reducing crime amid a national shift in attitudes about cannabis.
Marijuana is allowed for some form of medical use in most states even as it remains illegal under federal law. In 2012, Colorado and Washington voted to become the first states to broadly allow the sale of marijuana to adults. The industry has grown since, with a total of 10 states and Washington, D.C., permitting adult use.
-- David McFadden
Featured image: Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby, shown during a press conference July 27, 2016, announced Jan. 29, 2019, that her office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases regardless of quantity or a person's prior criminal record. She said possession charges don't have public safety value and disproportionately burden communities of color. (Associated Press file photo/Steve Ruark)