Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced Tuesday that her office will stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases, citing a “lack of a demonstrable public safety benefit.”
“We need to get serious about prioritizing what actually makes us safe and no one who is serious about public safety can honestly say that spending resources to jail people for marijuana use is a smart way to use our limited time and money,” Mosby said in a statement.
Mosby said that the policy was effective immediately and that if police arrest someone for “simple possession” that person will be released without charges.
Interim Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said officers will not be given new orders in light of Mosby’s policy.
“Baltimore Police will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession,” Tuggle said in a statement.
Mosby’s new policy continues to allow for the prosecution of distribution cases, but all first-time felony possession with intent to distribute defendants will be referred to diversion, according to a media release. Mosby also plans to vacate nearly 5,000 convictions dating to 2011 and to introduce legislation making it easier for prosecutors to vacate certain convictions.
“I think it is a really significant move, and it is in some sense putting her money where her mouth is in terms of making substantial changes in how we treat these kinds of low-level crimes and realizing the impact they have on people who get criminal convictions,” said David Jaros, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “Society is moving beyond criminalization for marijuana and it is a progressive prosecutor who recognizes that.”
Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said he hopes other jurisdictions follow Baltimore’s lead on possession cases.
“Simple possession of marijuana has never been where Baltimore’s public safety issues lie, yet significant resources have been spent on arresting, prosecuting and sentencing individuals based solely on these allegations,” DeWolfe said.
The General Assembly has taken some steps to decriminalize marijuana possession, including making possession under a certain amount chargeable by civil citation. Legalization bills have returned to the legislature in 2019.
Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery, praised Mosby’s decision Tuesday and said he hoped it sends a signal to other politicians.
“I’m glad to see it and I hope other county state’s attorneys will follow suit,” said Moon, sponsor of a legalization bill this session.
Moon said that similar steps were taken in other jurisdictions before statewide legalization and that he hopes Mosby’s announcement is an encouraging sign for Maryland.
Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he supports Mosby’s policy, which aligns with legislative changes he has pushed for in the past.
“I think the writing is on the wall that at some point in the future, Maryland will … have the opportunity to go forward into the area of recreational use,” Zirkin said. “In the meantime, I don’t think police and law enforcement should be wasting their time on this.”
Mosby said jailing individuals for marijuana possession was “a vast and ongoing moral failure” and said the enforcement of marijuana laws particularly hurt black residents.
“The statistics are damning when it comes to the disproportionate impact that the ‘War on Drugs’ has had on communities of color,” Mosby said.
Baltimore Public Defender Kirsten Getty Downs praised Mosby’s decision.
“We share the State’s Attorney’s concerns about the harm caused by prosecuting marijuana possession, including the disparities in enforcement,” she said. “In Baltimore and around the country, marijuana use has never been unique to a particular race or economic class, and yet arrests and prosecutions for marijuana possession have always targeted low-income people of color.”
At the press conference announcing the new policy, ACLU of Maryland Executive Director Dana Vickers Shelley said marijuana laws have been used as tools for profiling and lead to higher arrest rates for people of color.
“We urge the Baltimore Police Department to take heed of this policy for change, to stop arresting people for marijuana possession and to focus on helping our communities become safer,” she said.
Michael Pinard, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said the policy is a “course correction for decades of really racialized prosecution of minor drug offenses” that has lasting consequences for individuals and families in Baltimore.
“I do think this recognizes the true weight of a criminal conviction and that’s something that we should be really cognizant of: How long should a punishment last?” Pinard said.
Moon said a marijuana conviction can make it hard for people to secure jobs, housing and education, making the punishment disproportionate to the offense.
“At a minimum, this would certainly help people not have to answer that they’ve been convicted of a crime,” he said.
Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, praised Mosby’s decision in a news release Tuesday.
“Branding individuals — many of whom are at an age when they are just beginning their professional careers — as lifelong criminals for minor marijuana possession offenses results in a litany of lost opportunities including the potential loss of employment, housing, professional licensing and student aid, and serves no legitimate societal purpose,” he said.