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Building safe and just communities [Commentary]

Marylanders are ready for an open and serious discussion about our state's laws pertaining to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. As currently constructed and enforced, these laws are costly, ineffective and racially biased, and they result in a permanent blot on the records of too many of our young adults. Criminal arrest and prosecution for small amounts of marijuana is not the most effective strategy to keep our neighborhoods safe, and it draws resources away from the fight against violent crime.

It's time for these laws to change.

We support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana because our justice system must be fair, treat all Marylanders equally and give all of our young people the same opportunity for a brighter future.

But make no mistake: decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana does not mean we'll stop going after the real dangers in our communities — the distributors, the dealers and violent criminals who do real harm in our neighborhoods. It does not mean we'll stop educating our children about the risks associated with marijuana use. And it does not mean we're interested in legalization; that's another conversation for another time.

We're interested in what people here in Baltimore and throughout our state want: a safe place to live, work and raise a family. Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana supports this goal. It addresses the reality that no matter where you go in Maryland, law enforcement and local leaders have to make choices about where to deploy the resources needed to fight crime. And in our day to day work (as an elected public official and the leader of a non-profit dedicated to supporting families in our city), we've seen that Marylanders don't want their law enforcement resources wasted.

According to the ACLU, it costs Maryland $106.7 million to enforce our marijuana possession laws. That represents resources we could (and should) be using to put police officers where they're needed, along with funding additional substance abuse treatment, education, drug prevention and job training efforts for our young men and women looking to get ahead.

As we make our communities stronger, we also have a responsibility to root out any biases in our justice system. Because when any Marylander is treated unfairly or is subject to different treatment, all of us suffer. And as a result, our justice system is weakened, not made stronger.

While our current possession laws affect all Marylanders, there's no doubt that they impact some more than others. The fact is that in our state, African Americans and white Marylanders use marijuana at nearly identical rates, but in 2010 African Americans in Maryland were almost three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. African Americans represent almost 58 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in Maryland but only 30 percent of Maryland's population.

These young African American men aren't just statistics — they're our family members and our neighbors. They're our fathers and sons; men we meet every day at the Center for Urban Families and in communities throughout Maryland. And they're part of a growing class of Marylanders who are unable to achieve their full potential, as an arrest for even a small amount of marijuana makes it more difficult to get accepted into school, find a job or even find a place to live. Their arrest is a permanent shadow: a minor mistake that follows them for the rest of their lives, preventing them from pursuing a path toward success. We don't endorse using marijuana, any more than we endorse a minor traffic violation or a minor's use of alcohol. But by decriminalizing possession for small amounts of marijuana, we can ensure that in all three cases, a bad choice will end with a fine instead of a jail term and criminal record.

To that end, decriminalizing the possession small amounts of marijuana cannot be a signal to our young people that it is OK to use drugs. And any efforts at decriminalization must be coupled with education — teaching our children about the dangers of drug use and helping them make better choices.

While violent crime throughout our state is at an all-time low, we must continue to make our state safer. Each and every day, we're working with community leaders, local elected officials and law enforcement, getting them the resources they need to protect our communities. We're going to continue those efforts and programs like the Violence Prevention Initiative, where we track and go after our most violent offenders. But to be effective, we should move away from arresting Marylanders for possession of small amounts of marijuana and put our resources where they belong: going after the real and violent crime in our communities.

Anthony G. Brown is lieutenant governor of Maryland and a gubernatorial candidate; his email is lt.governor@maryland.gov. Joseph T. Jones Jr. is founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based Center for Urban Families; his email is jjones@cfuf.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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