Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced Tuesday her office would cease prosecuting people for possessing marijuana regardless of quantity or criminal history.
Marijuana arrests have done little to curb crime and stop violence in Baltimore, but they sure have ruined the lives of thousands of mostly African American residents. Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to no longer prosecute anyone arrested for marijuana possession can go a long way in addressing the racial disparities that have disproportionately landed African Americans in jail with criminal records, despite the fact that they use the drug at the same rate as whites. Yes, the police have scaled back on such arrests since a law went into effect in 2014 that reduced the penalty for possession of fewer than 10 grams of cannabis to a simple citation and fine, but while the raw numbers may be down, racial bias is not. The arrests are six times higher for African Americans who live in Baltimore than for whites, according to the prosecutor’s office.
When Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced last year he would no longer prosecute such cases, arrests were also way down. In fact, 90 percent of such cases were punished with civil fine or citation and not arrest. But when left up to the discretion of the cops, the 10 percent that wound up in handcuffs were mostly African American, and Mr. Krasner rightfully decided that was problem.
The persistence of such a disparity in Baltimore is all the more egregious in light of society’s increasingly tolerant attitude toward marijuana. Solid majorities believe it should be legalized for recreational use, and the top leaders in the General Assembly think so too. As the medical marijuana business in Maryland thrives and is poised to make many business owners rich, it doesn’t seem fair to criminalize others for simple possession. (Funny, when it comes time to prosper off marijuana, the disparity doesn’t benefit people of color, as was made evident when no grower licenses went to minority-owned businesses. The governor, at the pressure of the black caucus, eventually ordered a disparity study that enabled the state to make race a consideration in the process.)
Sadly, while Ms. Mosby was surrounded by community activists in making her announcement, those she needs to support her most were obviously absent. It is unfortunate that the Baltimore police aren’t on board with Ms. Mosby’s decision — and that Mayor Catherine Pugh’s support was lackluster to say the least.
Interim police chief Gary Tuggle, a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said officers will continue to make arrests unless and until state law is changed to make possession of the drug legal. Ms. Mosby said she reached out to Tuggle a couple of weeks before her announcement to get his blessing, but he declined. Mr. Tuggle’s stance is counterproductive and shows how continued lack of collaboration between agencies muddies up crime fighting abilities in the city, where violence still runs rampant. Ms. Mosby explained her decision in part as a matter of allocating resources where they’re most needed, and the same is true for the cops. Arresting people for simple marijuana possession is no better use of officers’ time than taking them to court is of prosecutors’. Now that they cannot lead to a conviction, making these arrests becomes simply cruel — disrupting a person’s life for no reason, landing them in jail and subjecting them to the bureaucratic judicial system knowing the charges will only be dropped. What sense does that make?
Perhaps, it is because, as the ACLU has found in its own investigations, these arrests are used to racially profile people, or used as a pretext to conduct fishing expedition searches in hopes of catching people for other crimes. We can only hope a new commissioner will see how fruitless it is to continue making marijuana arrests in light of Ms. Mosby’s policy.
Ms. Pugh for her part said that those who deal drugs “fuel criminality that leads to violence.” We agree drugs spurs turf wars and gang battles that are the root cause of the most heinous crimes in the city, and we’re sure Ms. Mosby does too. That’s why she plans to continue prosecuting marijuana distribution cases, and her policies related to those suspected of violence or illegal gun possession remain the same.
Ms. Mosby is also facing criticism from those who argue that her new policy means little, given the drop in straight possession arrests since decriminalization. But that ignores the other part of her announcement: A commitment to work with the courts to vacate nearly 5,000 previous cases. We’d bet those who have been caught up in the arbitrary, ineffective and racially discriminatory prosecution of marijuana laws will find that pretty meaningful.