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Decriminalization Is Not Enough

In October of 2014, possession of under 10 grams of marijuana was decriminalized in Maryland and in January of this year, the Maryland General Assembly overturned Gov. Larry Hogan's veto and decriminalized possession of drug paraphernalia. This means you can't catch a criminal charge for modest amounts of weed or a bong, papers, or pipes.

This is a good thing, obviously, but decriminalization has not changed the disproportionate policing of pot when it comes to black versus white users. In 2014, there were 2,964 arrests of African-Americans for possession of marijuana and 239 for whites in Baltimore. In 2015, with decriminalization in place for the entire year, 475 African-Americans were arrested for marijuana and only 18 whites. According to a 2013 report by the ACLU, "The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and White," the state of Maryland arrests people for possession at one of the highest rates in the country, arrests black people at higher rates than whites in every county in the state, and arrests of African-Americans increased by 5,614 between 2001 and 2010 while white arrests increased by only 371.

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This year, Maryland also began moving ahead with its medicinal marijuana program, though it will be delayed because so many people applied, which indicates the huge interest in this business that should propel the state to invest more resources in processing the requests but nope, it's just been delayed. Worse than the state dragging its feet, many black growers, processors, and dispensers are potentially left out of the business because the 2015 application to receive a grower, processor, or dispenser license in Maryland says a felony drug conviction is "an immediate disqualifier" and disproportionate minority confinement statistics indicate more of our black residents would be prevented from growing.

An excellent article over at BuzzFeed last month, "How Black People Are Being Shut Out Of America's Weed Boom" by Amanda Chicago Lewis summed up this absurdity quite well: "For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it's not that simple. Yes, investors and state governments are eager to hire and license people with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim, and process cannabis. But it can't be someone who got caught. Which for the most part means it can't be someone who is black."

With that in mind, City Paper spoke to Kaitlyn Boecker, policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs in Washington, D.C. about the limits of decriminalization, the drug war's racism, and how and why weed should be legal.

City Paper: There has been celebration amongst activists and smokers as we move towards decriminalization but it's also apparent that this is not far enough. What problems persist even when weed is decriminalized?

Kaitlyn Boecker:  We are continuing to see, like we always see, when you have criminalized drug use that it affects people of color. You know, the war on drugs is a war on people of color. And, we all know that and we've all known that for a long time so when you have this criminalization in place it's going to affect communities of color in an out sized way. We actually saw that racial disparities continued with who the citations were issued to.

CP: Can you explain why decriminalization affects people of color the most?

KB: Frankly, biased enforcement is generally the reason. It's pretty consistently found in multiple studies that people use drugs at a similar rate across the races. Especially marijuana is used at a similar rate across the races. So, a lot of folks like to say, "Oh, that's just because black people use marijuana more." That is not the reason at all. Studies have shown that its use is consistent across the races. So what it comes down to is, it's going to be biased enforcement.

CP: With this all known, what needs to be done?

KB: So, the Drug Policy Alliance believes that marijuana needs to be legalized and regulated in a manner similar to alcohol. When we make marijuana legal, we are going to get rid of the racial disparities in arrests. Anything short of that, you are going to continue to see these racial disparities and you are going to continue to see biased enforcement.

CP: How do we get to full legalization?

KB: I think a lot of it comes from the public telling their legislators that they're ready. As we know, public opinion gets there a lot quicker than our lawmakers get there. Basically, we just need to move our lawmakers to a place where they are ready to enact a comprehensive 'tax and regulate' bill for marijuana in Maryland. I think advocates envision that as the next step now that we have decriminalization in place. Everyone sees decriminalization as a good thing. The sky hasn't fallen. We're saving money. We're saving people from being involved in the criminal justice system. I believe that the next natural step is to move to 'tax and regulate.'

CP: Could you explain to skeptics how collectively, we all benefit from legalization?

KB: There are lots of different angles to that question. I think just the average person benefits because you are immediately taking away large chunks of wasted law enforcement resources that are going to petty marijuana arrests. Now, once there is legalization, those resources can be deployed more effectively so that's going to obviously help everyone in all communities. You're also going to have the benefits of not having friends and family deal with the collateral consequences of a marijuana arrest and then depending on how 'tax and regulate' is enacted, there can be really great provisions, including legislation that actually diverts tax income from marijuana sales to the communities that have been most damaged by the drug war. So that can be a really good benefit to communities that have suffered the most under marijuana prohibition. They can actually then benefit from marijuana revenue or revenue generated from marijuana sales.

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