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Best Week, Worst Week: Baltimore gets much-needed help; Legislative Black Caucus shut down on special session

bestworst-080517Baltimore got some much-needed good news this week for its continuing battle against drugs and violence while the Legislative Black Caucus suffered a setback in its quest to address racial disparity issues over cannabis growing licenses.

On Thursday, government affairs writer Bryan P. Sears reported that Gov. Larry Hogan reiterated the state would give Baltimore all requested resources and possibly more in an effort to stem the tide of a rising violence problem in the city. And on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Maryland would receive a federal prosecutor to help curb the city’s drug abuse problems.

The governor and Mayor Catherine Pugh met almost a month ago to discuss ways in which the state could provide additional resources to help the jurisdiction that is increasingly beleaguered by escalated and record violence. The governor and mayor spoke on the subject Wednesday and more talks between the two are expected next week.

Part of Pugh’s plan to put more officers on the street is to civilianize about 100 positions within the city police department so “we can move those officers onto the street immediately.” She intends to start a violence diversion program focusing on young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 that would focus on job training and individual needs.

There have been 206 homicides in the city so far this year, a pace that exceeds any other year in the past quarter century.

Also included in Pugh’s plan is legislation to toughen penalties for illegal gun possession in the state — a bill that has repeatedly stalled in the legislature. Pugh is hoping to pass a law that would make the crime a felony. Last month she announced city legislation that would impose a mandatory sentence for illegal gun possession. The controversial legislation was watered down by the Baltimore City Council.

Baltimore was also one of 12 cities named this week to get a federal prosecutor who will focus exclusively on investigating health care fraud and opioid scams that are fueling the city’s drug abuse epidemic.

Sessions said the group of prosecutors – they are dubbed the opioid fraud and abuse detection unit — will rely on data in their efforts to root out pill mills and track down doctors and other health care providers who illegally prescribe or distribute narcotics such as fentanyl and other powerful painkillers.

Such prescription opioids are behind the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in U.S. history. More than 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015 — a record — and experts believe the numbers have continued to rise. Sessions has made aggressive prosecutions of drug crime a top priority, saying the deadly overdoses necessitate a return to tougher tactics.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Black Caucus took a hit this week when leaders of the General Assembly announced that they would not call a special session to address its concerns over racial disparities in how medical cannabis growing licenses were awarded.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., in a letter to Legislative Black Caucus chair Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, tried to soften the blow, though, vowing “full support for passage of emergency legislation early in the 2018 session.”

Members of the caucus met in Baltimore shortly after the end of the 2017 session and demanded lawmakers return to Annapolis to address a lack of minority business participation in the state’s fledgling medical marijuana growing industry. An effort to pass legislation to address the concerns failed in the final seconds of the General Assembly session as the House failed to take the final roll call before the clock struck midnight.

Glenn and others said in April that there would be political repercussions for Busch and Miller should a special session not occur.

Last year the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission gave preliminary approval to 15 growers, none of which are minority-owned businesses.