By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, [email protected]
Even in a news cycle perpetually dominated by the maniacal political machinations of Donald Trump, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby was still be able to garner some national headlines with her announcement last week that her office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases. She is also seeking to vacate about 5,000 marijuana convictions.
“This is not something that I arrived to overnight, this was the result of months of…researching the best practices across the country,” said Mosby as she sat for an interview with the AFRO in her downtown office on E. Baltimore St. She had just returned from the sentencing of Terrell Gibson, who received 80 years for the murder of Dionay Smith, the younger brother of T.J. Smith, the former spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department.
“It has everything to do with the fact that it has no public safety value, it’s not making us any safer as a city to prosecute individuals in possession of marijuana. We have to be smart in our limited use of resources,” she added. “It makes absolutely no sense when you live in a city like Baltimore with 316 homicides…that we are expending resources to prosecute marijuana possession. And the most important aspect of it is the discriminatory enforcement and application of these laws on poor Black and Brown communities.”
Mosby’s office published a policy paper last week, “Reforming a Broken System: Rethinking the Role of Marijuana Prosecutions in Baltimore City,” which outlines in detail the grievous racial disparities in marijuana arrests and prosecutions.
While racial disparities are evident when considering the manner in which marijuana laws are enforced, the problem is even more compounded when such enforcement produces no demonstrable public safety benefit. For example, since 2014 the BCSAO (Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office) has closed 1,128 District Court cases for simple marijuana possession. Seventy three of those individuals were found guilty, five not guilty, 49 cases were stetted, and 1,001 (88%) cases were nolle prosequi. As a matter of consequence, no public safety benefit was seemingly gained in the overwhelming majority of these cases, yet they required the extensive use of limited city resources, including resources from not only the BCSAO but also resources from the Baltimore Police Department, according to Mosby’s report. Since the decriminalization of marijuana in Baltimore City in 2014, the report indicates that Black people have been issued citations almost exclusively despite the fact Blacks and Whites smoke marijuana recreationally at roughly the same rates.
According to Baltimore Police Department BPD records, in 2015 45 citations were issued and 39 of those were given to Black people (89%). In 2016, records indicate that BPD issued 199 citations for marijuana possession and 187 (94%) were issued to Black people. In 2017, BPD issued 431 citations for marijuana possession, where 410 (95%) were issued to Black people. Shockingly, approximately 42% of the aforementioned citations were issued in the Western District, where approximately 95% of the residents in this District are Black.
Despite the seemingly obvious racial implications of enforcement of marijuana violations, Gary Tuggle, Interim BPD Commissioner released a statement that indicated officers will continue to make marijuana arrests. Michael Harrison, who is poised to be Baltimore’s fifth commissioner since 2015, has reportedly vowed to continue that BPD policy on marijuana.
There has also been backlash against Mosby’s announcement from law enforcement agencies around the state.
“I wanted to be sure the citizens of Harford County understand this latest disappointing action of the City State’s Attorney has no impact here,” said Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler via tweet on Jan. 31. “We will continue to enforce the State’s laws in regards to marijuana possession because that is what we are sworn to do.”
Still, Mosby’s initiative makes her part of a growing group of big city prosecutors who are choosing to eschew prosecuting marijuana possession cases including: Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Kim Foxx in Chicago, Cyrus Vance Jr. in Manhattan and Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn.
Mosby, who was thrust into the national spotlight when she charged six officers connected to the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April 2015, acknowledges her continuing leadership role in the national conversation regarding criminal justice reform.
“I think that Baltimore is in a unique position in that we can be a model for the rest of the country. I’m open to criminal justice reform, and any way I can utilize my platform or to be an example for redefining what justice looks like from a prosecutorial perspective, then I’m open to it,” Mosby said.
“They can take our example, but I’m going to lead and ensure that the constituents that have elected me know that there’s always going to be one standard of justice in this city.”