Retroactive Restitution

How Baltimore, California, and New York Are Wiping Out Thousands of Cannabis Possession Convictions

Every 48 seconds, someone is arrested for cannabis possession, totaling over 600,000 arrests per year. Arrests for cannabis possession are so prevalent, they amount to nearly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. In legal states such as Washington, it’s easy to forget how immensely lucky we are to be protected from potentially life-ruining charges for the world’s most popular drug, but for millions of Americans, cannabis and heroin carry the same legal repercussions.

As a growing number of citizens grasp the idiocy of such an approach, not only is legalization becoming more prevalent but some prosecutors, like Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore State Attorney, announce that they “will no longer prosecute any cannabis possession cases, regardless of the quantity or an individual’s criminal record.” However, ending prosecutions does not end arrests, and it doesn”t change the reality that cannabis enforcement is used to predatorily target and profile low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

That’s why Mosby used a petition called “writ of error coram nobis,” which allows a court to reopen cases when a substantial error is found that wasn”t apparent in initial judgments. The petition, if granted, could wipe out thousands of cannabis possession convictions in Maryland.

“The sordid history of marijuana prohibition lies in ethnic and racial bigotry,” she writes in the filing, noting that racial disparities in possession arrests continue to exist in majority-black Baltimore even after Maryland’s 2014 decriminalization of amounts less than 10 grams. For years, severe racial disparities in cannabis arrests and sentence lengths have disproportionately targeted Black Americans at nearly four times the rate of white Americans, despite ample data suggesting that both groups use cannabis at nearly the same frequency.

In my previous article, The Color Green, I examined the lengthy and eerie history of the drug war as a means of racially motivated social control, with Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman admitting that the war on narcotics was used to “vilify [Blacks and the anti-war left] night after night on the evening news.” “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings,” he continued “did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

News of Mosby’s brave strategy follows approval of the new California law, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), by the State Legislature in August 2018. AUMA legalized, among other things, possession of up to 28.5 grams of cannabis and up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis for those who are 21 or older. It also requires the Department of Justice to review state criminal records in order to determine which past convictions would no longer be illegal under AUMA and would be eligible for recall or dismissal.

Prosecutors will have until July 1, 2020, to review and raise challenges against eligible convictions. A challenge can be raised if the prosecutor finds that the conviction is not eligible, or if the person “presents an unreasonable risk to public safety.” The courts will be required to reduce or dismiss the convictions that don”t receive any challenges by July 1, 2020. The state summary criminal history database will then be updated within 30 days. Any costs that are experienced by local agencies or school districts due to this law will be reimbursed by the state.

These stories accompany news that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. is dropping 3,042 marijuana charges, saying it is “one small step toward addressing the decades of racial disparities behind the enforcement of marijuana in New York City.”

Categories Law and Order

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