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Police Play ‘Catch and Release’ With Cannabis Offenders: Roadblocks to Progress in Maryland

Maryland’s Roadblocks to Cannabis Progress
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Police Play ‘Catch and Release’ With Cannabis Offenders: Roadblocks to Progress in Maryland

Maryland’s attempts at progress in cannabis policy have met with resistance, both from the police and from elements of the local cannabis industry.

Maryland has not legalized cannabis, but now allows cultivation for the medical market. This very limited medical marijuana law, adopted in 2013, is bringing a burgeoning cannabis industry to the state.

And Baltimore has been moving towards the kind of de facto decriminalization now being instated in other eastern cities such as New York, with state attorneys declining to prosecute for low-level cannabis offenses.

However, political obstacles — from state law enforcement and a certain slice of its population — continue to roadblock these attempts at progress in the Chesapeake Bay State.

Baltimore Police Play ‘Catch and Release’ With People Who Possess Cannabis

Back in January, the State’s Attorney in Baltimore, Marilyn Mosby, announced that her office would no longer prosecute for cannabis possession — regardless of the quantity or the arrestee’s criminal history. The famously progressive Mosby cited the “disproportionate impact that the war on drugs has had on communities of color.” She stated flatly: “There is no public safety value in prosecuting marijuana possession.”

But Baltimore’s police have resisted the change, openly asserting they will continue arresting those caught with more than 10 grams of weed, even if prosecutors will not press the charges. The stalemate has resulted in what urban affairs website CityLab terms a “catch-and-release” situation. Cops continue to arrest for cannabis possession, only to have the arrestees freed when prosecutors drop the charges.

“Arresting people for marijuana possession is an infrequently used, but sometimes important, law enforcement tool as we focus on violent crime and violent criminals in Baltimore,” a police department spokesperson told CityLab in an emailed statement. 

Community activists are upset at the absence of a clear policy from the authorities. “The prosecutor and the commissioner, the police department, they need to come together, they need to converge and be on the same page,” Walker Gladden, a youth coordinator at East Baltimore’s Rose Street Community Center, told CityLab.

And the stubbornness comes from the city’s already scandal-plagued police force that is concurrently pursuing an aggressive crackdown on gangs and the trade in hard drugs. Federally coordinated raids on “violent fugitives” have nabbed 264 this month, per a Baltimore Sun report, with 140 grams of heroin and 106 grams of cocaine seized. There was no mention of cannabis seized in these raids, but gang crackdowns elsewhere on the East Coast have resulted in cannabis convictions, even if pot isn’t what made the headlines at the time of the arrests.

Backlash to Equity?

One roadblock on Maryland’s march toward cannabis equity was removed March 29, when a medical marijuana company agreed to drop its lawsuit against state authorities following a vociferous outcry.

As the Baltimore Sun earlier reported, the Maryland cannabis company Curio filed its lawsuit just four days earlier in Baltimore County Circuit Court, charging that the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission was in violation of its own regulations by seeking applications for more growing licenses without completing a supply-and-demand analysis.

“It’s simply not true this lawsuit was intended to challenge the effort to improve diversity in our industry,” Curio Wellness founder and CEO Michael Bronfein told the Baltimore Sun. “In fact, Curio has always supported this effort and will continue to do so.”

The report noted that Bronfein is a prominent donor to the Democratic Party. But certainly the company’s suit had been perceived by many as part of a backlash to Maryland’s equity policy.

Regulations governing the state’s medical cannabis industry say the commission may seek to license more marijuana growing companies than the original 15 that were approved “to meet the demand for medical cannabis by qualifying patients in an affordable, accessible, secure and efficient manner.”

Curio stated in the suit that it had spent more than $10 million to build its cultivation business based on regulations that promised a “strictly limited number” of such licenses. To grant more licenses would jeopardize the investments of Curio and 13 other companies already approved to cultivate in the state, the case charged.

But the licensing had been extended to address concerns about racial justice in the state’s new cannabis sector. Cheryl Glenn, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates for Baltimore and an advocate for minority participation in the industry, said the state’s medical marijuana law always gave the commission the right to award new licenses as needed. She told the Sun that a “disparity study” conducted by the state to assess the industry found that African American firms had been effectively excluded from the program.

Based on the findings of the disparity study, the General Assembly passed compromise legislation last year to expand cultivation licenses to give Black-owned firms a second chance.

The study was carried out by Jon Wainwright of NERA Economic Consulting, who had earlier undertaken an analysis of the state’s minority contracting system. He wrote that the findings of the disparity study supported “the use of race- and gender-based measures to remediate discrimination affecting minority- and women-owned businesses in the types of industries relevant to the medical cannabis business.”

The study was met with enthusiasm among the Black Caucus in the House of Delegates. “I’m ecstatic Maryland can move forward and be a beacon of light and show it is a serious issue, that everyone should be concerned about having diversity in a multibillion-dollar industry,” Glenn told the Sun last January.

The deal was finalized in the statehouse last April.

Glenn, of course, was vindicated by the dropping of the lawsuit. “No one wants in 2019 to have a trillion dollar industry be controlled by all white men,” she told the Sun on March 29. “We have had widespread support.”

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