In 2010, Baltimore City police made 64,525 arrests, and more than 7,000 of them — 11 percent of the total — were for simple possession of marijuana. That represents thousands of man-hours by Baltimore City police, Central Booking officials, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and others, all of whom had better things to do. That year Baltimore recorded 224 homicides, ranking it among the five deadliest cities in the nation. And the enforcement of laws against possession of marijuana isn't just an issue in Baltimore; overall, the state logged more than 22,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2010, the third most per capita of any state in the nation.
Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley signed legislation that will make possession of a small amount of marijuana (10 grams, or about a third of an ounce) a civil offense, not a criminal one. Effectively, it will be treated like a traffic violation, with a fine of $100 for a first or second offense and the possibility after the third or subsequent offenses that the violator will be ordered to undergo drug abuse treatment. Under the previous law, the offense was a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail — though before 2012, the penalty was up to a year in jail.
It's difficult to determine exactly how often prosecutors took the time to try those arrested for simple possession of such a small amount of pot or how often they were actually convicted and sentenced to jail. But this is a clear case of the process becoming the punishment. The record of the arrest itself can make it difficult for offenders to get a job, and that can create a devastating set of social consequences, particularly because of one other pertinent fact about Maryland's marijuana laws: they are enforced at massively disproportionate rates against African Americans. Blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites statewide and more than five times as likely to be arrested for that offense in Baltimore. Among the most crucial elements of the new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, is that civil citations for marijuana possession will not show up in the Maryland Judiciary's online database.
Critics of the national movement to liberalize marijuana laws question whether these steps will lead to unintended consequences, such as an increase in marijuana use, particularly by minors. While that is certainly a valid concern, it falls short for two reasons. First, we would never set out to reduce marijuana use by creating a system that is, in its effect if not intention, racially discriminatory. And second, there is no clear evidence that the step Maryland is taking will lead to higher rates of use.
Much remains to be learned about the full legalization of marijuana that has taken place in Colorado and Washington. But decriminalizing marijuana is actually an old policy idea that has been tried in a handful of states for the last 30 years. The Marijuana Policy Project lists 11 states that have had decriminalization policies in place since the 1970s. Some of them are places you might expect, like California, Oregon and Alaska, and some are places you might not, like Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Nebraska. After a generation of experience under these laws, there is no obvious correlation between them and rates of marijuana use. The federal government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses surveys to track state-level statistics on the use of marijuana, and a few of the decriminalization states are the top tier for use, one (Mississippi) is in the bottom tier, and most are somewhere in the middle.
Ultimately, it seems inevitable that this will not be the last step in changing Maryland's marijuana laws. (For starters, lawmakers should address the fact that possessing small amounts of marijuana is not a crime but possessing a bong is.) Decriminalization may solve some problems caused by the war on drugs, but it still leaves in place a massive underground and criminal economy that feeds huge profits to violent street gangs and drug cartels. It also puts those who use marijuana in contact with criminals who frequently also sell more addictive and more dangerous drugs.
But Maryland does not need to be in the vanguard among states seeking to address those issues. For now, we can be content with a policy that eliminates a manifest racial injustice in our law enforcement system, removes barriers to gainful employment and allows police and prosecutors to focus their efforts where they are most needed.