What legalization of marijuana means for Maryland’s criminal justice system

By Lyna Bentahar

Marylanders voted last month to allow the legalization of cannabis for recreational use, making the state the 22nd jurisdiction and the last state in the DMV area to do so.

The legislation, which goes into full effect on July 1, 2023, allows the possession and sale of cannabis products up to one ounce for anyone 21 or older, and will mean the expungement of cannabis-related records for thousands of people.

“It is a huge step forward for the criminal justice system,” said Del. David Moon, who served on the House Cannabis Referendum and Legalization Work Group as chair of its criminal justice impacts subcommittee. Charging people for cannabis possession, he said, was “really messing with people’s lives for many non-violent events, and you’re creating criminal records that impacts their student loan eligibility, their eligibility for federal benefits, for some employments, for some housing. I could go on and on.”

While it’s not clear how many people currently have a marijuana possession charge on their record, approximately 15,000 people in Maryland were arrested for cannabis-related charges between 2018 and 2020, according to data from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a marijuana advocacy group. By July 2024, charges in the state of Maryland will be automatically cleared for anyone whose record only includes simple possession. For those currently incarcerated, the legislation now allows for resentencing and release.

While decriminalization of marijuana has created a multimillion-dollar industry in medical marijuana products, legalization will pave the way for an expanded cannabis industry. In Washington, D.C, a city with approximately a tenth of the population of the state of Maryland, the recreational marijuana industry is estimated to be a $200 million business, according to projections by MJBizDaily, an industry news outlet.

In 2014, when Maryland decriminalized possession of 10 ounces or less of marijuana, the state had the eighth-highest rate of marijuana arrests in the U.S. And in 2018, over half of all drug-related arrests in Maryland were marijuana-related. About 87% of those arrests were for possession.

Since 2018, however, 12 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, and all but 11 states have now approved it for medical use.

The legislation will have the greatest impact on the Black population in Maryland, which, while using cannabis at roughly the same rates as white people, is twice as likely to be arrested for possession as compared to the state population, according to Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services. In 2020 alone, 1,072 people were arrested for marijuana possession. For the individuals arrested, almost 60% of them were Black. Only 29.2% of the Maryland population is Black.

Olivia Naugle, senior policy analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project and a lead in organizing the Maryland Cannabis Policy Coalition, another advocate of the referendum, was inspired to advocate for marijuana reform after her father was arrested for marijuana possession when she was younger. Naugle said legalization was just as much a racial justice issue as it was a criminal justice issue.

“Communities of color have really borne the brunt of prohibition,” she said.

Eugene Monroe, a former Baltimore Ravens player and chairman of the “Yes on 4” campaign, which advocated for the approval of the referendum to amend the state’s constitution, argued that resources to maintain “prohibition” will be better allocated toward solving problems such as homicide rates, which have risen nationwide.

“Putting people in prison for a small amount for cannabis isn’t improving, you know, public safety by any means,” Monroe said.

“That ‘yes’ vote on 4 is a sign of hope, as this, you know, should bring about record expungement and opportunity for those, you know, for those folks who have records to be clear of cannabis,” Monroe added.

While the legislation was in the works for months, the referendum came close after President Joe Biden announced his pardon of all people who were federally charged with simple marijuana possession, affecting approximately 6,000 people. In announcing the pardon, Biden urged state governments to follow suit.

But Moon doesn’t think that’s the last of Biden’s work on cannabis reform. He predicted that the Biden administration would drop marijuana’s label as a Schedule I drug, which defines it as a highly abusive drug that cannot be used for medical purposes.

“I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see that at all,” Moon said of his prediction. “I think times are changing.”