Let's begin this year's Weed Issue with a brief, maddening story from a few years ago, before decriminalization, about being homeless and getting busted for pot, as told to City Paper's Kenneth Stone Breckenridge by deputy public defender for Baltimore Natalie A.M. Finegar.
In 2012, police arrested a black homeless man on the Light Rail for some weed that allegedly fell out of his pocket. Upon arrest, he listed his address as homeless. When he showed up in court he was offered probation before judgement with unsupervised probation along with a $100 fine and $57.50 in court charges. He didn't pay the fine or court costs and two years later, a warrant was served on him at a homeless shelter.
He spent two days in jail. A judge dismissed the contempt charge for not paying the fine but the court costs and his unpaid fine were referred to the Central Collection Unit. Two to three days after the man appeared in court, a 17 percent fee for the collection and interest was added. The interest would accumulate and if he couldn't pay, the collection agency would garnish his wages, according to the paperwork.
"If the same events on the Light Rail transpired today," Finegar writes in an email, "it wouldn't even be a crime. Possession of marijuana less than 10 grams is now a civil offense."
Finegar adds that homeless clients are apt to lose their paperwork for the initial court appearance and subsequent notices often never reach them since they've no proper address—and they tumble into deeper debt as the interest snowballs.
"Deferred payments are a regular practice of our court system. The Department of Justice recently issued a recommendation that court systems move away from fines," Finegar writes. "Fines disproportionately affect the poor and call into question the equality of justice for certain crimes."
Indeed, although Americans like to think pauper's prisons went out in Charles Dickens' time, studies have shown that across the country the poor can be and are re-arrested for their inability to pay everything from court fees to minor traffic fines.
Here, this Baltimore man's story is illustrative of just how many problems a simple pot possession charge can create for someone, especially when that someone lacks resources. It's also an example of the staggering amount of time and effort put into punishing a non-violent offender for something that is no longer even a crime in Maryland as of October 2014.
Welcome to a slightly more serious Weed Issue. See, doing something as light as our annual weed issue this time around, what with it being the one-year anniversary of Freddie Gray's death and the Baltimore Uprising and all, seems strange. We began our Freddie Gray coverage in last week's issue—to correspond with Gray's April 12 arrest— and we will pick it back up next week in April 27 issue, but still, some of these issues are connected.