Prosecutors at the Baltimore jail have begun releasing anyone brought in by police for marijuana possession without charges, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said.
Those arrested are being released quickly, she said, usually without spending the night in jail. They go home without the blemish of a criminal record.
Mosby led a panel discussion Wednesday night about her new policy to stop prosecuting such cases in Baltimore. In a wide-ranging discussion, she said police have disproportionately arrested African-Americans in West Baltimore for pot.
“They’re focusing on Tyrone in West Baltimore and not Tommy in Canton,” Mosby told the crowd. “That in and of itself is a problem.”
Last month, she announced that she would stop prosecuting people for possession regardless of the quantity or a person’s criminal history. Mosby also asked the courts to vacate convictions in nearly 5,000 cases of marijuana possession.
The convictions have saddled thousands in Baltimore with criminal records and frustrated their job searches, Mosby says.
Nearly 100 people attended the presentation at Baltimore City Community College. Pastor James McEachin of Corner Rock Ministries was unpersuaded.
“The system should not condone this,” he told Mosby.
But prominent defense attorney Warren Brown urged her to go further.
“Why not extend it to the simple possession of all narcotics?” he asked.
On the panel, Michael Collins of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance told everyone that, despite popular beliefs, marijuana doesn’t lead to harder drugs.
“There’s no evidence that it is a gateway drug,” he said.
Whether her policy brings change in the streets remains to be seen. State lawmakers and city police already have been relaxing enforcement. Mosby’s office says it dropped 88 percent of possession cases since 2014.
That same year, state legislators decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams. Now, marijuana possession brings only a fine. Baltimore police said they were arresting about one person a day for possession.
Police have said they won’t change their practices. For years, commanders have shifted focus from drug users to violent criminals. The few marijuana arrests are incidental to their work to suppress street violence, police say.
Mosby, however, said any marijuana possession arrests drain precious resources. In one case, police book and fingerprint the suspect. Prosecutors watch the officer’s body camera video. The lab tests the drugs. The attorneys prepare for trial and pick a jury. The officer comes to testify.
The new marijuana policy aligns Mosby with some of the most progressive prosecutors in the country. Last February, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told his prosecutors to reject charges of marijuana possession regardless of weight. Last July, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that he would also stop prosecuting marijuana cases.
Mosby has promised to continue prosecuting everyone suspected of selling marijuana. Her office will look for evidence of drug dealing: baggies, ledgers, scales.
In Annapolis, State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch have been considering legalizing marijuana for adult use and taxing it as a way to help pay for public schools.
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Busch has said he doesn’t think the matter will come up this year. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana by adults.