Baltimore to stop prosecuting marijuana possession

Tim Prudente
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Tuesday her office would cease prosecuting people for possessing marijuana regardless of the quantity or the person’s criminal history.

Calling the move monumental for justice in Baltimore, Mosby also requested the courts vacate convictions in nearly 5,000 cases of marijuana possession.

“When I ask myself: Is the enforcement and prosecution of marijuana possession making us safer as a city?” Mosby said, “the answer is emphatically ‘no.’”

Mosby follows district attorneys in Manhattan and Philadelphia who have scaled back or outright ended marijuana prosecutions. Maryland lawmakers decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in 2014.

Support: But she also stood alone, politically: No police and no other city officials joined her at the announcement.

Hours later, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced her support for what “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.”

Mosby aims to formalize marijuana policies already in practice. A report released Tuesday by her office shows city prosecutors dropped 88 percent of marijuana possession cases in Baltimore District Court since 2014 — 1,001 cases.

Still, convictions have saddled thousands in Baltimore with criminal records and frustrated their job searches, Mosby said. The marijuana arrests have disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Nationwide, African-Americans are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana. The ratio jumps to six times more likely in Baltimore, prosecutors wrote in the report.

Such arrests squander scarce police resources, Mosby said, noting 343 people were killed in Baltimore in 2017. Police closed nearly one-third of those cases. Last year, 309 people were killed and police closed closer to one-quarter.

“No one,” Mosby said, “thinks spending resources to jail people for marijuana is a good use of our limited time and resources.”

Unclear: But it remains unclear how the policy will play out in the streets. Mosby made her announcement at the nonprofit Center for Urban Families in West Baltimore while surrounded by her staff, marijuana advocates and neighborhood activists. Police leaders weren’t there.

Former Baltimore mayor and state’s attorney Kurt Schmoke has supported the decriminalization of marijuana and advocated treating drug addiction as health policy not criminal justice.

Schmoke said Mosby can’t go at it alone.

“In order for her policy to be effective, she has to coordinate it with local law enforcement,” said Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore.

Mosby said Tuesday night that she had informed interim police commissioner Gary Tuggle of her plan.

Tuggle, a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said his officers wouldn’t quit arresting people for possessing marijuana.

“Baltimore Police will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession,” he said in a statement.

Drug arrests, however, have largely declined. Since lawmakers decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in 2014, arrests for possession for larger amounts have also plunged. Within one year, arrests dropped by more than 60 percent.

Police leaders have long said they are focused on violent crime and marijuana arrests aren’t a priority. But officers routinely use marijuana as reason to search the pockets or car of someone suspected in more serious crimes.

Additionally, prosecutors had already been dropping many marijuana cases in Baltimore.

One of Mosby’s former political rivals said her announcement rang hollow.

“Baltimore stopped prosecuting marijuana cases years ago,” said Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy attorney general of Maryland who lost to Mosby in the November election. “This announcement is a good way to grab a headline but changes nothing.”

Concern: A longtime drug czar of Baltimore County said early intervention from the courts can help steer someone away from harder drugs.

“Most heroin addicts started their drug use with marijuana. It’s a gateway drug,” said Mike Gimbel, who led Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse for more than a decade. “For her to make a blanket statement that we’re not worried about how much they had, or we don’t care if they have a criminal history — that’s absolutely irresponsible.”

Her message amounts to legalizing marijuana in Baltimore City, Gimbel said.

“Give everybody amnesty, everybody gets off, and we lost the ability to interact with these people and stop the cycles of addiction,” he said.

Mosby has pledged to continue to prosecute anyone suspected of selling marijuana. She said her office would take cases to court when police find evidence of drug sales, such as baggies and scales.

“There has to be something beyond mere possession,” she said.

The shift on marijuana comes as just the latest change in drug prosecutions by Baltimore prosecutors. Mosby has said she plans to hand off fentanyl cases to the federal court where penalties are stiffer.

A war on people: Neighborhood activist Dayvon Love, of the group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said marijuana arrests have broken up many families in Baltimore.

“It was not a war on drugs, but a war on black people, a war on brown people, a war on poor people,” he said. “Think about all the generations that have been lost.”

In nearby Baltimore County, State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said he had no plans to quit prosecuting marijuana cases. Most first-time offenders are placed in a treatment program in the county, he said.

Mosby also urged state legislators to support a bill that would empower her office to vacate criminal convictions in everything from corrupt cop cases to marijuana prosecutions. The current procedures require action from both prosecutors and defense attorneys to vacate a conviction.

On Tuesday, prosecutors filed papers for marijuana cases dating back to 2011 to be vacated — about 1,000 in Circuit Court and nearly 3,800 in District Court. Judges would rule on the requests.

Trend: The policy shift in Baltimore comes amid a national trend of softening criminal penalties and even permitting the use of marijuana. Ten states and D.C. have legalized the use of marijuana by adults, said Olivia Naugle of the Marijuana Policy Project.

“We applaud State’s Attorney Mosby,” Naugle said. “Decades of arresting people for marijuana possession did not make Baltimore safer.”

Maryland has already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession under legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2014 and signed into law by former Gov. Martin O’Malley. Possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana is now punishable only by fine in the state.

In her statement, Pugh advocated a collaborative approach going forward, involving Mosby, lawmakers and police.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch have been considering legalizing marijuana for adult use and taxing it as a way to help pay for the $3.8 billion in recommendations from the so-called Kirwan commission, which is trying to boost public school education in the state.

Miller has been in favor of legalizing the drug for several years, but has said he believes bills setting up referendums should be passed in the year they go before the voters. The state’s next election is in 2020.

“The State’s Attorney’s announcement does not change the plans of the General Assembly,” said Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, Miller’s chief of staff.

In a recent interview with The Sun, Busch said he did not expect marijuana legalization to pass this year.

“I don’t think you’re going to see it come through this year,” Busch said. “I think anything dealing with the legalization of recreational marijuana will have to go to referendum as well.”

Busch’s chief of staff, Alexandra M. Hughes, said that view is unchanged. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has said he’s not in favor of legalizing marijuana this year, calling such efforts “premature.”

— Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.