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Baltimore Will Stop Prosecuting Marijuana Possession Cases

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Baltimore’s top prosecutor said on Tuesday that her office will stop pursuing marijuana possession cases and will also move to clear the criminal records of people with prior cannabis convictions dating back to 2011.

“We need to get serious about prioritizing what actually makes us safe, and no one who is serious about public safety can honestly say that spending resources to jail people for marijuana use is a smart way to use our limited time and money,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a press release.

The office will still prosecute individuals for felony possession with the intent to distribute marijuana, but first time offenders will be referred to diversion programs instead of being incarcerated. The new policies take effect immediately, Mosby said.

The purpose of the policy changes is to allow law enforcement to prioritize serious crimes while at the same time saving money and resources that would otherwise be spent going after cannabis consumers. In making the announcement, Mosby also highlighted racial disparities in enforcement and said arresting people for possession undermines public trust in police.

In a paper detailing the policy shift, Mosby said “history demonstrates” that “the roots of the disproportionate impact of marijuana criminalization on people of color in the United States can be traced beyond the War on Drugs.”

“A sordid history of marijuana prohibition lies in ethnic and racial bigotry,” she wrote. “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.”

“[G]iven the legitimate public safety concerns that do exist in our nation’s cities, when resources are expended to address marijuana possession cases (from docketing to finger printing and general processing of those arrested to the ultimate resolution of charges), those same resources are no longer available to address significant criminal activity. This leaves those communities most affected by serious crime with no punitive, rehabilitative or public safety value gained from the prosecution of marijuana possession cases.”

While Maryland decriminalized certain marijuana offenses in 2014, hundreds are still arrested for simple possession in Baltimore. The racial disparity in those possession cases is stark. According to a recent Baltimore Fishbowl analysis of police data, 1,514 people were arrested for possession in the city from 2015 to 2017, and 96 percent of those individuals were black.

“Decades of arresting and prosecuting people for marijuana possession did not make Baltimore any safer, and it had a dramatically disproportionate impact on communities of color,” Olivia Naugle, legislative coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release cheering Mosby’s moves. “Countless individuals have been branded with convictions and subjected to life-altering collateral consequences that cause them more harm than marijuana ever could. Unfortunately, this has continued to be the case in Baltimore City even after decriminalization in 2014.”

“While contemporary attitudes and public policy toward marijuana have changed dramatically in the past few years, the enforcement of marijuana laws remains grossly disproportionate in its impact on communities of color,” Mosby wrote in her report. “Moreover, prosecuting marijuana possession has not been shown to significantly improve public safety or public health outcomes in communities, and the resources saved from prosecuting such cases can be redirected to prosecuting drug kingpins and addressing other significant crimes, including crimes of violence.”

“The [Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office] understands this and, coupled with the overwhelming evidence showing that the War on Marijuana has only served to further intensify existing racial biases across our country’s criminal justice system without securing any significant net gains, the Baltimore City State’s Attorney stands ready to use her prosecutorial discretion to change how marijuana laws are enforced in Baltimore City and, in so doing, re-balance the justice system one individual, one family, at a time.”

The city attorney is also proposing state legislation that would empower prosecutors to more broadly vacate convictions. Text of the proposed bill, which was obtained by Marijuana Moment, shows that it would allow prosecutors to vacate convictions for offenses that are no longer crimes, for marijuana and paraphernalia possession and for “any other reason justifying release from the judgment, in the interest of fairness and justice.”

Read the text of Mosby’s proposed bill as well as court documents that will be used in order to vacate relevant convictions below:

Baltimore Marijuana Policy … by on Scribd

Mosby is calling on lawmakers and law enforcement officials to throw their support behind the policy changes.

“We need leaders here in Baltimore who are actively working toward a vision of safety that makes all of us more secure in our great city—that can’t happen when we’re focused on marijuana possession cases instead of solving and prosecuting more murders,” she said.

Mayor Catherine Pugh offered tempered support for the aims of the new cannabis plan in a statement, but urged state legislators to address underlying laws.

Police officials, however, said they would continue arresting people for possessing marijuana, even if there would be no follow up by prosecutors.

“Baltimore Police will continue to make arrests for illegal marijuana possession unless and until the state legislature changes the law regarding marijuana possession,” Baltimore Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Mosby joins a growing coalition of chief prosecutors in major cities that are proactively reforming cannabis enforcement policies while lawmakers weigh broader reform measures. In Manhattan and Brooklyn, for example, district attorneys have implemented similar changes to keep low-level marijuana offenders out of the criminal justice system.

Marijuana Use Will No Longer Be Prosecuted In Manhattan

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

After New Mexico Lawmakers Fail To Pass Marijuana Legalization, Governor Says Voters Could Decide

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Marijuana legalization failed to happen legislatively in New Mexico this year, but now Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) says she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change.

A bill to legalize cannabis in the state advanced through one Senate committee last month, but it was rejected by another with just days left in the legislative session, which ended on Thursday. When lawmakers reconvene in 2021, the governor said it’s possible the legislature will pursue the reform move through a constitutional amendment that would be referred to voters at the ballot box.

Lawmakers would still have to vote in favor of advancing such a proposal to get it on the ballot, but it may be more palatable to some to let voters make the ultimate decision on whether to legalize marijuana in the state.

“We could,” Grisham said on Thursday in response to a question about whether the state could pursue a constitutional amendment to legalize. “I mean, I’m open to any number of pathways.”

She added that brining advocates and experts to the table while crafting a “regulatory design” for a cannabis market is an “incredibly transparent” process, but it also means “you get a lot of questions about how it works.”

“Overwhelmingly in every county, New Mexicans believe that that’s a productive economic path forward,” the governor said. “My job is to keep with them, making the case and trying to the best of our ability to answer any question, deal with any conflicts and to make sure that when we do anything, our expectation is that New Mexico does it the best and that we set aside and move aside by addressing them, any unintended consequences or potential risks.”

Listen to the governor’s remarks on a potential marijuana legalization constitutional amendment below: 

“I’ll probably do a little of both, and I have no doubt that the legislators will do that as well,” she said.

A constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana was approved by a Senate committee in 2015, but it did not advance further. It was reintroduced the next year, but it didn’t get a committee vote.

Grisham, who was elected in 2018, has made clear that cannabis reform is a legislative priority, including legalization in her 2020 agenda. She also discussed the need to establish a well-regulated and equitable marijuana market during her State of the State address last month.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in 2019 to legalize marijuana and let state-run stores control most sales. The proposal later advanced through one Senate committee but did not receive a floor vote. Lujan Grisham did sign a more limited bill to simply decriminalize marijuana possession that lawmakers approved during that session, however.

After legalization failed to advance last year, the governor established a working group to study the issue and make recommendations.

Following a series of hearings, the panel released a report in October that said any legalization bill should include automatic expungements of past records and provisions to ensure equity in the industry for communities most impacted by the war on drugs. It also said that home cultivation of marijuana by consumers should either be prohibited or licensed by the state.

In December, the governor’s working group released a poll showing overwhelming public support for cannabis legalization.

Kentucky House Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Candidate Gives Marijuana To Voters At ‘First-Ever Congressional Weed Party’

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“Get your blunt!” Illinois Democratic congressional candidate Anthony Clark tells a voter in a newly released campaign video. “We’re having a pretty dope day party.”

Ahead of the state’s March 21 primary election, Clark, an Air Force veteran and special education teacher in Chicago, has made marijuana a key campaign priority. On Thursday, he released a video shot at what he’s calling the “first ever congressional weed party in Chicago.”

“We just wanted to do something different,” Clark explains in the video. “I feel like we’re all out here in the struggle, we’re all out here living, we’re all out here grinding on a daily fucking basis.”

Clark has said that he first experimented with marijuana in high school but rediscovered it as an adult after being injured in a Seattle shooting. “Weed has literally saved my life. I’m a veteran with PTSD,” Clark says in the video. “It’s time we changed this narrative that exists, eliminate the stigma.”

Adult-use cannabis sales have been legal in Illinois since January 1.

“We’re gonna celebrate that, but there’s still a ways to go,” Clark tells party attendees, a blunt in one hand and a shot glass in the other. In Illinois, he adds, public funds are still be spent on “jailing street dealers…who are predominantly black and brown in the poor communities.”

Clark’s candor around his own cannabis use appears to have helped his campaign against incumbent Rep. Danny Davis (D), who’s held the seat for the predominantly black district since 1997. Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times endorsed Clark over Davis, saying the district “deserves a representative who is impatient to change the world, which might be Clark’s best trait.”

In a separate campaign video released in November, Clark smoked marijuana on camera and said he’s transparent about his cannabis consumption because “if we really want to make change and we have a platform, you just have to be courageous with your platform.”

“I think I have to be just as open about my cannabis use because lying to individuals, I think, plays a direct role in enabling status quo, in enabling the oppressors, the top one percent, to remain,” he added.

Some supporters say it was Clark’s bold stance on cannabis that first got them involved in the campaign. “I first heard about Anthony Clark on Facebook,” one supporter, identified as Miriam, says in the new video, “and I seen him and a group of three people smoking a blunt.”

“It’s ending the stigma,” she says. “It’s ending the harsh stigma.”

Clark ran for the same congressional seat two years ago. He earned 26% of the primary vote but lost to incumbent Davis, who has generally supported cannabis amendments in Congress but hasn’t made the issue a key focus for his office. This year observers expect the challenger to do even better on primary day.

Much has changed in the state since 2018, after all, especially around cannabis. Last year Illinois became the first U.S. state to legalize adult-use sales through its legislature, and state officials so far have been broadly supportive. A day before marijuana became legal, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), who made legalization a part of his own election campaign, pardoned more than 11,000 people with low-level cannabis convictions. When stores opened, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (D) was one of the first in line to buy edibles.

At his State of the State address last month, the governor said legalization “gives us a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana” and provides “a second chance to hundreds of thousands of people who had a low level cannabis conviction or arrest on their record.”

Licensed marijuana stores in Illinois sold $40 million worth of recreational marijuana products during the first month of legal sales. State officials say $8.6 million of that came from out-of-state cannabis tourists.

Congressional Candidate Smokes Marijuana And Talks Legalization In Campaign Video

Photo courtesy of Facebook/Anthony Clark

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Federal Reserve Sends Reminder That Hemp Businesses Can Get Bank Accounts

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A Federal Reserve Bank district is making clear that financial institutions no longer have to automatically treat hemp businesses as suspicious under reporting rules.

In a post on the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank website, the institution clarified that since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, banks no longer have to file suspicious activity reports just because a business transaction involves the crop.

“Properly licensed industrial hemp producers can now be treated the same as other bank commercial customers for anti-money-laundering regulatory purposes,” the notice published this month states.

However, it reiterated that marijuana transactions will continue to be flagged, as the intoxicating variety of the cannabis plant remains federally prohibited.

“Unlike marijuana, hemp contains very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that causes an altered state when ingested or smoked. Hemp that contains less than 0.3 percent THC is considered legal,” Carl White, the senior vice president of the Supervision, Credit, Community Development and Learning Innovation Division at the Fed district, wrote. “The legal marijuana business is not affected by the change in status for hemp production, because marijuana is still considered a controlled substance under federal law.”

But as others have recognized, the central bank district said that despite “the change in the legal treatment of hemp, many bankers have been reluctant to work with the industry because of regulatory concerns.”

To that end, the the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued guidance last year clarifying that “banks are not required to file a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) on customers solely because they are engaged in the growth or cultivation of hemp in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.”

Even so, it is apparent that some financial institutions remain reluctant to bank hemp businesses, and so the Fed is seeking to put them at ease with the new explanatory post.

“The main takeaway from the regulators’ statement is that banks no longer need to automatically fill out Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) when working with a hemp producer customer because hemp production has been legalized,” the St. Louis-based bank said in the new post. “They can follow standard procedure and file a SAR if suspicious activity warrants.”

“Bankers with questions about the 2018 farm bill and hemp can contact the USDA, state agriculture departments or tribal governments. Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration retains some regulatory authority over hemp products, banks can contact that agency with questions about hemp-related food, drugs or cosmetics.”

The post notes that “banks should be looking out for additional guidance” on federal hemp rules from financial regulators. It’s not clear when that will be issued, however.

While marijuana policies remain complicated given federal prohibition, there is significant interest among Federal Reserve Bank districts in ensuring that those rules are clarified as well. The presidents of three such institutions called for guidance on marijuana banking last year.

The Federal Reserve Bank Of Kansas City also recently issued a report on Colorado’s cannabis market and determined that it would continue to grow as support for legalization rises, though it may not grow as fast as it initially did immediately following legalization.

Twelve GOP Lawmakers Thank Senate Chairman For Delaying Marijuana Banking Bill

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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