An open letter signed by 14 local advocacy groups is urging Mayor Catherine Pugh to clarify Baltimore’s inconsistent enforcement of cannabis laws by directing the new police commissioner to stop arresting people for low-level marijuana offenses.
Signers of the document include organizations representing murder victims’ families, religious groups, medical personnel and drug policy reform advocates. The letter included multiple annotations to support claims that marijuana possession is disproportionately policed in black communities both in Baltimore and nationally.
“The long-term harm of continued cannabis possession enforcement is too grave for you not to take bold and immediate action,” the letter states.
After Mosby announced the policy change in January, Pugh said she supported the prosecutor’s attempt to address the unnecessary criminalization of those who possess marijuana for personal use.
A group of local advocacy organizations have written a letter to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh asking her to urge police to stop making marijuana arrests.
“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,” Pugh said.
After the policy shift, then-interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said his officers wouldn’t quit arresting people for possessing marijuana. It is unclear how acting Commissioner Michael Harrison intends to approach the issue.
Police leaders have long said they are focused on violent crime and that marijuana arrests aren’t a priority. But officers routinely use marijuana as a reason to search the pockets or car of someone suspected in more serious crimes.
Baltimore’s lack of clarity on marijuana enforcement is what prompted groups such as the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition to write the open letter, said coalition organizer Rajani Gudlavalleti.
“Even though we do support State’s Attorney Mosby's decision to not prosecute, we also know that won't change things on the ground,” Gudlavalleti said.
“But that path is meaningless so long as the police insist on arresting and incarcerating for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety. We need strong leadership from you to make clear that our community resources should be used to keep our community safe.”
The advocacy groups chose to send an open, annotated letter to Pugh, rather than meeting directly, in hopes of providing Baltimore residents with a “primer” on how marijuana policing intersects with race relations, Gudlavalleti said.
“This letter ... brings to light an array of proof on the issue,” she said.
Marijuana arrests have disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods in Baltimore, according to a report released by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office in January.
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.
Prosecutors in other cities, such as Philadelphia and Manhattan, have announced similar strategies of reducing marijuana enforcement in the wake of the heroin epidemic and a nationwide shift toward legalizing cannabis consumption under various conditions. Maryland lawmakers decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in 2014.
The letter calls on Pugh to be “equally bold” by compelling the police department to collaborate with Mosby and to deliver a response by March 8 — a date Gudlavalleti hopes will give the mayor ample time to consider the request.
Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said Thursday that arrests for marijuana possession are never the focus of police patrols in the city, but are sometimes — and will continue to be — the outcome in instances where officers are confronted with illegal amounts of the drug.
“It is no wonder that tensions between Baltimore police and Black communities remain persistently high,” the letter states. “But we can take action to help heal this division — and ending enforcement for simple cannabis possession is a critical first step.”