State lawmakers and Baltimore police have for years been relaxing enforcement on those who smoke marijuana. So when city State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced her plan this week to stop prosecuting those people, the officers were already making few arrests.
By the department’s own count, police arrest about one person a day for the possession of marijuana. That’s in a city of more than 610,000 people.
Mosby revealed her plan Tuesday, saying she won’t prosecute anyone for marijuana possession regardless of quantities or prior criminal records. The next day, police provided statistics showing 1.6 percent of arrests last year were for marijuana possession.
Officers arrested 363 people last year, 339 people in 2017 and 311 people in 2016 for marijuana possession alone. They made nearly 21,900 arrests last year. A police spokesman provided the statistics in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.
Interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said his officers wouldn’t change their practices — no matter Mosby’s policy. For years, the department has shifted focus away from drug users to violent criminals, though shootings have gone on unabated. The few marijuana arrests are incidental to police work intended to suppress street violence, Tuggle said.
“We’re not expending resources going after pot; we’re expending our resources going after violence,” he said.
Mosby has promised to continue prosecuting everyone suspected of selling marijuana. Her office will look for evidence of drug dealing: baggies, ledgers, scales.
Benefits of her new policy extend beyond the courtroom, Mosby says. Even one marijuana possession case squanders precious resources. One arrest robs police of minutes that could be spent elsewhere. One bag of marijuana contributes to a backlog at the evidence lab.
Mosby wrote The Baltimore Sun in response to questions about the arrest statistics, saying police don’t make neighborhoods safer by enforcing laws against marijuana possession.
“It’s time for us, as law enforcement, to re-prioritize our time, attention and money on crimes that actually have an impact on public safety,” she wrote.
Police view the laws as protecting the quality of life for Baltimore families. As someone who grew up in Baltimore, Tuggle knows plenty of families don’t want pot around.
“When I see a young mother standing on a bus stop with a 3-year-old child,” he said, “then you’ve got somebody standing next to her smoking marijuana — or even worse, marijuana laced with K2, Spice or even fentanyl, which we have seen — that’s a rough experience for that mother.”
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. In many ways, Baltimore’s marijuana policies mirror Philadelphia.
Philadelphia saw thousands of marijuana cases a year before police began a new policy of writing tickets for possession. Police continued to arrest those caught buying marijuana — about 500 or 600 cases a year.
Krasner said these marijuana policies matter — whether it’s 500 possession cases in Philadelphia or 300 in Baltimore.
“The lives of those 300 people are important,” he said. “There is a point to be made: We are talking about people who are buying beer at the end of Prohibition. Why on earth would we prosecute people for buying beer at the end of Prohibition?”
Philadelphia police officers were paid overtime to attend court during marijuana cases. Krasner said the police union opposed his policy because of the prospect of lost overtime pay.
Last July, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced he would also stop prosecuting marijuana cases.
In Manhattan, however, police had been arresting thousands of people for possessing marijuana — as many as 5,500 cases in 2017.
For each white person, Vance said, there were 15 people of color prosecuted.
Vance said he discussed his policy with Mosby.
“She told me she was coming out with this,” he said. “I was encouraging. I thought it was right that we did it in Manhattan, and I thought it had proven not to be a decision that was adversely affecting public safety.”
Initially, Vance said, his plan was met with concerns that relaxed rules would lead to people smoking marijuana in neighborhood streets — it hasn’t.
There’s benefit to Mosby’s plan, he says, even if Baltimore police make few marijuana arrests.
“This is a recognition that the law has been applied disproportionately on our economically disadvantaged communities,” he said. “We have an opportunity to let those communities know we understand better the adverse consequences of prosecuting these cases.”
Mosby has said marijuana arrests saddle African-Americans in West Baltimore with criminal records and frustrated their abilities to find jobs. She has also asked the courts to vacate convictions in nearly 5,000 cases of marijuana possession.
The symbolism in Mosby’s policy matters too, says Jolene Forman, an attorney with the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance in New York.
“It means that a prosecutor is listening to her constituents and pays attention to what matters to them,” Forman said. “That really helps build trust.”
Mosby has said she met with Tuggle and told him of her plans to end the prosecutions. She made her announcement surrounded by neighborhood activists — not police or lawmakers. The policy shift puts her at odds with police, but she’s not alone there.
Manhattan police did not agree to stop arrests for marijuana possession, Vance said.
“The most powerful tool we have as prosecutors is our discretion. We are elected to exercise our discretion,” he said. “The police department makes judgment questions all the time on who it’s going to arrest and not arrest.”
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One month after Vance announced his policy, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill said officers would no longer arrest a majority of New Yorkers caught smoking marijuana in public, instead issuing them notices to appear in court.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, the state’s top legal official, declined to comment on Mosby’s policy.
Cities like Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia are reforming the criminal justice systems as public opinion swings in favor of legalizing marijuana.
Maryland lawmakers decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in 2014. Meanwhile, 10 states and D.C. have legalized the use of marijuana by adults.
That city police make few marijuana arrests should be a signal to state lawmakers, said Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
“It’s just another sign for me of what ultimately needs to happen,” he said, “the State of Maryland needs to put on the ballot in 2020 recreational marijuana.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.