By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
The war on drugs escalated since its inception in 1968 during the administration of Richard Nixon and the Nixon ideology spread to the state and city level through the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s, to the opioid crisis of today. The Black community remains the hardest hit over the last 50 years of this “tough on crime” thinking.
Last month, Baltimore’s top cop, State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced a de-escalation in the so-called War on Drugs.
Mosby’s office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases and possession alone will no longer be considered sufficient evidence for the intention to distribute marijuana. Further, the Mosby administration is seeking the power to vacate as many as 5,000 previous possession convictions.
Under the name “Court in the Community” Mosby has held a public forum with the stated purpose of explaining the reasoning for the new direction and to clear misconceptions about its ramifications.
“There’s been a lot of misconceptions about what our marijuana policy is…,” Mosby told the audience at Baltimore City Community College (BCCC) late last month. “Is the prosecution of these types of cases making us safe as a city? And what we ultimately concluded is that there was no public safety value.”
The conclusions are detailed in a report published alongside the SAO’s announcement titled “Reforming A Broken System: Rethinking The Role Of Marijuana Prosecutions In Baltimore City.”
The AFRO reached out to the experts and leaders that informed the decision and have a part in building consensus with the people of Baltimore.
“ I was the primary author of an ACLU report called ‘The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and White,’ said Sonia Kumar, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Maryland and a member of the BCCC panel. “Essentially it was an analysis of documenting race disparities in marijuana arrests for possession across the state, including in Baltimore CIty.”
In 2013, the report found Maryland to have one of the worst Black/White disparities in stops, arrests and convictions, despite Whites using marijuana at approximately the same rate as Blacks.
“Law enforcement officers, and I think that there are folks who will freely admit this, are able to use the smell of marijuana as a basis and sometimes a pre-textual basis for searches that otherwise could not be justified,” Kumar told the AFRO. “And one of the challenges of that it is almost impossible to disprove after the fact. Even when police consistently come up empty after saying they have smelled marijuana.”
“The damage is done and the search has been carried out.”
In the 90s, the ACLU brought suit against the Maryland State Police (MSP) in one of the first “driving while Black” cases.
“We actually obtained records related to every search conducted by MSP for a certain period of time and were able to look at the bases for the search based on the cause given,” Kumar said. “So, for example, if they said ‘we smelled marijuana,’ we were able to isolate that and then the race of the person stopped and then the outcome of the search. What we found in that analysis was that inexplicably, law enforcement had a lot more false positives on ‘the smell of marijuana’ for Black and Brown motorists, rather than White motorists. Which sort of reinforces the idea that the smell was offered as the pretext for searches, sort of on a fishing expedition.”
Response from the community at large and those in attendance to Mosby’s forum have been mixed.
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS), a Baltimore policy think tank, is part of the messaging campaign to explain the merits of the new policy to the community of Baltimore.
“In terms of LBS, we’ve been supportive of it, in terms of the larger community, I think there are mixed reactions,” said Dayvon Love, the group’s director of public policy. “I think the mixture of reactions has to do with the notion that has been pretty commonplace that the ability to arrest and prosecute for drug crime were an important leg in public safety strategy. Part of the conversation has been about shifting people’s notion as to what is an effective public safety strategy away from the ‘cast a broad net’ to a more refined and really more humane approach to public safety that really focuses on the people that are the drivers of violence and crime.”
Despite the guarantee of the State’s Attorney’s Office, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) continues apace with arrests for marijuana possession.
The BPD, the organization most directly involved in ameliorating the damage of dubious searches and reportedly pointless arrests, did not respond to the AFRO’s request for comment.