Maryland Governor Pardons 175,000 Marijuana Crimes

[ Posted Monday, June 17th, 2024 – 16:21 UTC ]

Maryland Governor Wes Moore today signed a blanket pardon that covers 175,000 marijuana crimes committed in the state, reaching back to the 1980s. It could wind up covering even more, since records older than that are stored on paper -- meaning they will not be automatically pardoned, but if people from back then apply for one they will also get a pardon. This already covers an estimated 100,000 people (some of whom have multiple marijuana offenses). Moore is following in the footsteps of other states and jurisdictions who have already either pardoned or expunged criminal records for simple marijuana possession or use. What this all means is that not only is the War On Weed ending in state after state, but in some places people are retroactively trying to heal the damage the War On Weed has done to millions of people.

Moore is currently the only Black governor of a state, it bears mentioning. People of color have been disproportionately impacted by the War On Weed and Moore campaigned on trying to right some of these past wrongs in policing and the criminal justice system. A White kid from the Maryland suburbs might have gotten caught with a baggie of weed only to have the cop sternly pour it out and grind it to dust under his heel, whereas a Black kid from Baltimore might have been arrested and charged (and drawn a harsh punishment) for the same crime involving the same amount of marijuana. This has been going on for decades, which is how the racial disparities in the statistics were created. This is also why Moore announced and signed the pardon two days before Juneteenth is celebrated. At the pardon-signing ceremony, the state's attorney general addressed this:

"Today is about equity; it is about racial justice," Anthony Brown, Maryland's attorney general, said on Monday. "While the order applies to all who meet its criteria, the impact is a triumphant victory for African Americans and other Marylanders of color who were disproportionately arrested, convicted and sentenced for actions yesterday that are lawful today."

Maryland is one of the 24 states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. It is now the tenth state (plus the federal government and some individual cities) to issue such blanket pardons for past convictions for simple possession or use (a full list of all such pardons and expungements is available from the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws). Maryland has now pardoned more total convictions than any other state except Massachusetts.

The executive order Moore signed today was notable for another reason, too -- it was "unique in pardoning people with convictions related to possession of cannabis-related paraphernalia, as well as cannabis possession." This is important, because Maryland was a pioneer in making paraphernalia illegal, possibly due to the fact that one of the biggest manufacturers of such equipment ("US Bongs," for those old enough to remember) used to be headquartered in the state. A 1980 article in the Washington Post shows how Maryland was out front on the issue:

A federal judge in Baltimore yesterday upheld Maryland's sweeping new law banning the use, possession, manufacture or sale of drug paraphernalia and said the measure was properly "designed to assist in controlling a pressing problem [drug abuse] of modern-day life."

U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey ruled that the law, which prohibits such accessories to illegal drug use as pipes, scales, needles, blenders, spoons and balloons, is not unconstitutionally vague because it requires proof that the items were intended for use with illegal drugs before any prosecution can occur.

Harvey's decision resulted from a suit filed against the state last spring after the legislature overwhelmingly adopted the politically popular measure and Gov. Harry Hughes signed it into law.

The suit by a trade association and three businesses that manufacture, distribute and sell various drug devices charged that the new law unfairly curtailed their businesses, would not have the desired effect of curtailing the use of illegal drugs and was unconstitutionally broad and vague because it banned items commonly found in hardware stores, supermarkets and department stores. Harvey rejected all these arguments when he upheld the statute.

At one point while the legislature was discussing this law, they even considered making the cardboard tubes inside of rolls of toilet paper and paper towels illegal as well (because an enterprising pot-smoker can make a pipe out of them -- but then an enterprising pot-smoker can make a pipe out of just about anything, including food items such as carrots or apples). This was roughly when the War On Weed truly went crazy, even before Nancy Reagan supercharged things with her "Just Say No" campaign.

The Post has a pretty good rundown today of what the pardon means and who it will apply to (complete with details). The New York Times also helpfully summarized it all:

The mass pardon does not remove the convictions entirely from people's criminal records. Under Maryland's program, people whose convictions are pardoned can apply to a state court for expungement of their records. Those cases are decided individually by judges, and are not automatic, an administration official told reporters in a background briefing.

The mass pardon applies automatically to anyone with an electronic record showing a misdemeanor marijuana conviction in the state. People with convictions that predate electronic records can also get a pardon, but they must apply individually; their requests will be granted if they meet the criteria, the official said.

This is good news indeed, although it certainly won't restore what was lost by so many for the simple crime of having some weed. Jason Ortiz, from the Last Prisoner Project (a group "that advocates clemency for cannabis offenders"), is but one example of harsh punishments just being wildly disproportionate to the crime:

"As someone who, at the age of 16, who was arrested for cannabis possession and actually had an accelerated charge because I had paraphernalia and a pack of rolling papers, I was thrown out of school, denied access to my high school education, ripped from my family and my friends and had to endure two years of isolation for a simple cannabis charge," Mr. Ortiz said.

Does anyone today think that a punishment that severe was somehow justified by what he was caught with? Plenty of people back in the 1970s and 1980s did, that's for sure. Today Wes Moore took a big step towards righting at least some of the wrongs from the past. He should be applauded for doing so, and governors in other states should jump on this pardon bandwagon. It is time to completely turn the page on this dark chapter of American history once and for all.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “Maryland Governor Pardons 175,000 Marijuana Crimes”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    In other countries (I believe Russia is one), convictions are automatically overturned if what you were convicted of is later made legal. It's called "amelioration."

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Next up? Magic mushrooms!

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    …and perhaps ketamine and MDMA. They have psychological applications.

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