Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby told a U.S. House panel Wednesday that the city exemplifies the nation’s failed drug policies, and called on the government to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level.
“The reason I’m here today is because there is no better illumination of this country’s failed war on drugs than the city of Baltimore, Maryland,” Mosby told a House Judiciary subcommittee. “A mere 45 minutes away from our nation’s capital, Baltimore currently leads the nation in per capita homicides, rising opioid deaths and is one of the most impoverished cities in the nation.”
The Democrat sat at the end of a long witness table facing a dozen or so subcommittee members.
The Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security did not focus on any specific legislative proposal at the crowded hearing, but rather addressed marijuana laws generally and what it called “racial justice.”
“What we’ve been able to see in Baltimore is that there has been discriminatory enforcement in the application of marijuana laws,” said Mosby, who spoke quickly and passionately, gesturing with her right hand for emphasis. "What we’ve seen, unfortunately, is that because of that discriminatory sort of enforcement, it has eroded public trust.”
Nationally, too, Mosby testified, data has consistently shown African Americans are almost four times more likely to be charged with marijuana possession than white people, “despite individuals of both races using marijuana at the same rate.”
The nation has seen a cultural shift in recent years in attitudes about marijuana, with an increasing number of states legalizing it to various degrees.
In Maryland, the state in 2014 decriminalized possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana. In 2017, it passed a law allowing people convicted of marijuana possession to seek expungements of the charge from their records four years after completing their sentences, rather than 10. Also, the state allows a sick person to buy marijuana at a licensed dispensary with a doctor’s recommendation.
Full legalization has been discussed for years in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly. Last month, a legislative task force began studying possible legalization of cannabis for adult, recreational use. The discussions in Annapolis include whether legislators should seek to directly legalize cannabis usage by passing a bill or set up a referendum for voters on the 2020 ballot.
The two-hour hearing Wednesday came as Congress is revisiting policies — many related to drugs and sentencing — that led to mass incarcerations accelerating in the decades before 2000. With bipartisan support, Republican President Donald Trump signed legislation in January shortening some sentences for drug violations and other offenses and expanding job training and other programs for ex-prisoners.
Subcommittee member Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said there is potential for bipartisan reform of marijuana laws. But he said he was dismayed Democrats “decided to play the race card at today’s hearing” and "inflame racial divisions.”
McClintock, who made the remark in his opening statement, appeared to be referring to plans for the hearing by the Democratic majority. The Democrats titled the hearing: “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform.”
Mosby testified that "I am here today because I refuse to accept the status quo any longer. I refuse to be complicit in the destruction of our Black and Brown communities.”
In response to a question from another Democrat, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Mosley called for the federal government to remove marijuana from the drugs listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act. Mosby said that would encourage states to take appropriate action of their own.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states in the country to legalize marijuana for adult use. Now, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug.
But marijuana remains on the the federal list of Schedule I controlled substances. That means it is illegal in the eyes of the federal government, even as states take their own positions.
Mosby’s written testimony included a plea to end federal criminal penalties in states where marijuana is legal.
“It is illogical to impose federal penalties upon individuals that act in compliance with state law,” she wrote, citing the 10th Amendment’s limit on federal powers.
In January, Mosby outlined a new marijuana prosecution policy in Baltimore to repair what she called a “broken system.” She announced that she would stop prosecuting people for possession, regardless of the quantity or a person’s criminal history.
She also asked judges to erase convictions in nearly 5,000 cases of marijuana possession, dating to 2011, but city judges in April denied her requests. A motion for reconsideration is under review, she told the subcommittee.
Mosby told the panel the Baltimore Police Department “did not agree with my decision initially" regarding marijuana prosecutions.
She said in an interview after the hearing that “we’ve seen a reduction in the number of arrests. It’s kind of early to be definitive in that assessment. I’m rather encouraged and cautiously optimistic that we’re getting it.”