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NewsMarylandSun Investigates

Racial disparity in marijuana arrests has grown, ACLU finds

American Civil Liberties Union

The gap between rates for black and white people arrested on marijuana possession charges widened significantly in the past decade, according to Maryland data released by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the organization, said that the trend is particularly troubling at a time when public opinion is shifting toward legalizing the drug. In Maryland, 51 percent of respondents favored legalization and 40 opposed it, according to a Goucher College poll published Friday.

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein and other prosecutors have been stepping up programs that let people facing minor drug charges avoid a conviction. And Russell A. Neverdon Sr., who plans to challenge Bernstein in next year's Democratic primary, has said he would be open to reconsidering the state's drug laws.

Late last month, a federal judge agreed to impose lighter-than-usual sentences on defendants in a major marijuana case, saying that U.S. authorities appear to view the drug less seriously now than they did when sentencing rules were written.

But between 2001 and 2010, the overall number of marijuana possession arrests in Maryland grew, and the number of black people charged grew much faster, the ACLU said in a report published this week. The organization said the trend — repeated in counties across Maryland — suggests police are biased in the way they enforce drug laws.

The biggest racial disparity was in Garrett County, where African-Americans are almost 6.5 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Baltimore City had the next-highest gap: about 5.5 times.

Baltimore police have said that they do not target people to arrest based on their race. The Garrett County sheriff's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"It seems to be a structural problem, where in every single county you have this racial disparity," said ACLU Maryland spokeswoman Meredith Curtis.

The ACLU report builds on a national analysis that the group published earlier this year, which found that Maryland had the fourth-highest arrest rate for marijuana possession of any state.

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