Top Baltimore Prosecutor Marilyn Mosby is making headlines as she joins several other major cities in refusing to hear marijuana possession cases. Baltimore has one of the nation’s highest big city murder rates and only 25% of homicides are solved. With so many large-scale crimes, Mosby believes she simply does not have time to deal with cannabis convictions.
Mosby announced late last month that she would not be hearing anymore cannabis cases saying, “If you ask that mom whose son was killed where she would rather us spend our time and our attention — on solving that murder, or prosecuting marijuana laws — it’s a no-brainer.” She claims that no matter the quantity or previous criminal record, she aims to eliminate nearly 5,000 convictions. The move did cause some controversy but Mosby believes this will better community relations with law enforcement and allow police officers to focus on serious violent crime.
Baltimore can now be added to a list of other major cities implementing similar policies. Prosecutors Kim Foxx in Chicago, Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Cyrus R. Vance Jr. in Manhattan have all moved away from trying cannabis cases, and some have even voided old warrants and prior convictions.
Many of the reasons behind these moves are similar to campaign foundations that have lead to legalization in some states: Cannabis, they claim, is not associated with violent crime. They believe that enforcing the cannabis prohibition is simply making it harder for thousands of people (who now have criminal convictions) to find jobs and housing, as well as being a huge waste of government resources.
However, there is another claim being made: Clearing cannabis convictions can make the community even safer. By eliminating the priority of marijuana, police can now focus their attention on ending violence as well as alleviating racial tensions that have plagued Baltimore (and other cities) in the past. Most of the marijuana convictions in Baltimore were held by African-Americans, many say this is because police have targeted those communities for easy convictions. Over 90% of cannabis citations from 2015-2017 were issued to African-American citizens who only make up approximately 60% of the population. One of the major complaints in neighborhoods around Baltimore is that police will not help solve any real crime.
Mosby postured, “How are we going to expect folks to want to cooperate with us when you’re stopping, you’re frisking, you’re arresting folks for marijuana possession?”
Major opposition, however, comes from the Baltimore Police. They question the efficacy of this policy change. Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh did commend Mosby on her efforts to tackle the “unnecessary criminalization” of cannabis users, but did not go as far as to endorse the policy change. Gary Tuggle, the interim police commissioner in Baltimore, mentioned he would not advise law enforcement to stop making cannabis arrests. He said arrests will continue “unless and until the state legislature changes the applicable laws.” However, later this month Michael Harrison from the New Orleans Police Department will take over as commissioner, he will mark the fifth commissioner since Mosby took office. Harrison has gone on record as recently as 2016 supporting changes in New Orleans that allowed summons citations to be issued instead of making arrests, actually requiring officers get permission before making arrests.
Baltimore Police have had severe credibility issues of late. There have been bodycam videos showing officers planting evidence on suspects or in the vicinity, there was a “Gun Trace Task Force” that ended up robbing people and planting evidence on them, and there have been reports of shootings that were never solved and in some cases never even investigated. In April, a Baltimore jury acquitted a man of gun possession after the police commissioner himself testified that “he had found a loaded gun in the driver’s glove compartment,” showing the level of trust Baltimore citizens have in the police. Incredibly, there was even a judge from the Justice Department that claimed, “the department seemed to have a culture of timidity when it came to confronting corruption.”
Tre’ Murphy, a member of Black Leaders Organizing for Change, said, “I don’t think we can afford to wait these long time frames,” going on to say, “Until we recognize the harm that many of these policies have caused and rebuild these institutions from the ground up, people will never trust it.” Murphy citing the fact that these policy changes did not appear until Ms. Mosby’s second term. Her first term was fraught with police scandals. Other leaders around the country have had a quicker pace.
Chicago Prosecutor Kim Foxx is tasking her office with expunging misdemeanor cannabis convictions. St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell is moving to eliminate cannabis trials for amounts less than 100 grams. Boston Prosecutor Rachael Rollins is going as far as eliminating the prosecution of possession with intent to distribute, drug possession, and a total of 13 other crimes.
Many cannabis advocates do support Mosby’s attempts at progressing policy, mentioning that changes such as dropping “distribution” or “intent to distribute” charges without the presence of scales or plastic bags (and not merely quantity) is a huge step forward.
Jolene Forman, Drug Policy Alliance senior staff attorney stated, “That’s kind of taking it to the next step, in a manner that’s consistent with how people actually use when they’re not trying to profit.”
Mosby did clarify that this policy does not cover multiple charges such as possession of a firearm in conjunction with cannabis, but said that they will attempt to pass legislation that would make it easier for prosecutors to overturn convictions under the proper circumstances.
Although Mosby has had her fair share of issues in Baltimore, she defeated her opponents in the 2018 primary and ran unopposed in the general election. She understood that the real issues stood with neighborhoods that were suffering from violence while simultaneously being prosecuted at extremely high rates for minor crimes.
This marks yet another enormous leap forward in marijuana policy across the United States. Eyes will be watching these cities closely to see if the reduction of cannabis convictions and prosecutions positively impact those communities, and can be replicated elsewhere.