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Maryland Governor to Issue Mass Pardons for Low-Level Marijuana Convictions

Maryland Governor Wes Moore will issue mass pardons Monday morning for more than 175,000 marijuana convictions, one of the nation’s most sweeping acts of clemency involving a drug now widely used recreationally.

The pardon will forgive low-level marijuana possession charges for an estimated 100,000 people, which the Democratic governor says is a step to heal decades of social and economic injustice that disproportionately harms Black and brown people. Moore noted that criminal records have been used to deny housing, employment and education, keeping people and their families detained long after their sentences have been served.

“I’m ecstatic that with what I’m signing we have a real opportunity to right a lot of historical wrongs,” Moore said in an interview. “If you want to be able to create inclusive economic growth, that means you have to start removing the barriers that continue to disproportionately impact communities of color.”

Moore called the scope of his pardon “the most far-reaching and aggressive” executive action among officials across the country who have sought to eliminate criminal justice disparities with the increasing legalization of marijuana. Nine other states and several cities have pardoned hundreds of thousands of old marijuana convictions in recent years, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Legalized marijuana markets reap billions in revenue for state governments each year, and polls show public sentiment on the drug has also shifted, with more people embracing cannabis use and rejecting the racial disparities exacerbated by the War on Drugs.

The pardons, timed to coincide with the Wednesday June holiday, a day that has come to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States, come from a rising star in the Democratic Party and the only black governor of a U.S. state whose rise has been built on the promise to “leave no one behind.”

Derek Liggins, 57, will be among those pardoned Monday, more than 16 years after his last day in prison for possessing and trafficking marijuana in the late 1990s. Despite working hard to build a new life after serving his time, Liggins said he still misses out on job opportunities and potential income.

“You can’t hold people accountable for marijuana possession when you have a dispensary on almost every corner,” he said.

According to the ACLU, black people nationwide were more than three times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. President Biden issued mass pardons for federal marijuana convictions in 2022 — a reprieve for about 6,500 people — and urged governors to follow suit in states, where the vast majority of marijuana prosecutions occur.

Maryland’s pardon effort rivals only that of Massachusetts, where the governor and an executive council jointly issued a blanket pardon policy in March that is expected to impact hundreds of thousands of people.

But Moore’s pardon appears to stand alone when it comes to the impact on communities of color in a state known for having one of the worst records for disproportionately incarcerating Black people for any crimes. More than 70 percent of the state’s male inmate population is black, according to state data, more than double their share in the community.

Maryland, the most diverse state on the East Coast, has a dramatically higher concentration of black people compared to other states that have granted broad pardons for marijuana: 33 percent of Maryland’s population is black, while Illinois is the next highest, at 15 percent.

Maryland is the only state in the DC region that has fully legalized the sale of cannabis, although both the District and Virginia have decriminalized possession and gray markets for the drug exist. Virginia and D.C. have not issued mass pardons for cannabis convictions, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but Biden’s pardons had an impact in D.C. because they applied to thousands of people arrested on federal land.

Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown (D) called the pardon “certainly long overdue as a nation” and “a matter of racial equity.”

“While the pardon will extend to anyone with a felony conviction for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia, it unequivocally, without question or reservation, disproportionately impacts — in a good way — on Black and brown Marylanders,” said him in an interview. . “We are being arrested and convicted at higher rates for marijuana possession and use, yet the rate at which we were using it was no different than any other category of people.”

Reducing mass incarceration inequality in the state has been a key goal of Moore, Brown and Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, all of whom are the first Black people to hold office in the state. Brown and Dartigue have launched a partnership between prosecutors and defense attorneys to study the “entire continuum of the criminal system,” from exit from law enforcement to reentry, in an effort to uncover all the moments where discretion or bias could have an impact the way justice is administered, and ultimately implement reforms. It.

Officials in Maryland said the pardon, which would also apply to people who are dead, will not result in anyone being released from prison because no one is in custody. Felony cannabis charges carry short sentences and prosecution for misdemeanor criminal possession has been halted because possession of small amounts of the drug is legal throughout the state.

Moore’s clemency action will automatically pardon any marijuana possession charge that the Maryland judiciary might find in the state’s electronic court filing system, along with any misdemeanor paraphernalia charge related to the use or possession of marijuana. Maryland is the only state to pardon such paraphernalia charges, state officials said.

Electronic records in some Maryland jurisdictions date back to the 1980s, while others begin in the 1990s or later. People with older cannabis convictions stored on paper can also apply for a pardon.

Demographic data on those pardoned will be limited as of Monday.

But Moore’s administration noted that nearly a quarter of the clemency convictions occurred in Baltimore — a city with a history of unconstitutional over-policing of Black communities — even though less than 10 percent of the state’s population lives there. In the DC suburbs, roughly 12 percent of pardon convictions occur in Prince George’s County, and 6 percent in Montgomery County.

A 2013 ACLU report noted that cannabis arrests in states increased nationally in the first decade of the century, with Maryland and D.C. having among the top five highest arrest rates in the country.

According to a state analysis, marijuana arrests in Maryland topped 10,000 per year in 2020 — nearly a decade after possession of small amounts was decriminalized and three years after it became legal to be a medical patient.

As Maryland prepared to legalize the drug for recreational use in 2022 — along with nearly two dozen other states — a report from state analysts found that white Maryland residents use cannabis at higher rates than Black residents, but Black people use it more than twice as much had a chance to do that. charged with possession. By law, 35 percent of tax revenue generated from legal marijuana sales must go back to communities where cannabis enforcement is disproportionate to the rest of the state.

“The whole basis of our work was about righting injustices from the War on Drugs,” Del says. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), chair of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus. Noting that Maryland has recently elevated Black people to key positions of power — including speaker of the House of Representatives — she said, “We are in Maryland right now where we are really focusing on equality.”

People who benefit from the mass pardon will see the charges listed in court records within two weeks and removed from criminal background check databases within 10 months. However, the convictions will still appear in open court unless someone files a request for expungement.

Other states have forgone pardons – which forgive the crime – and have instead simply blocked cannabis convictions from public view. California, for example, has sealed, dismissed or expunged more than 200,000 convictions since a 2018 law required it.

The nationwide effort to reduce the impact of marijuana convictions follows a recent loosening of federal regulations that could pave the way for broader access to the drug in the United States.

The Biden administration began working on the issue in 2022, when the president directed health officials to investigate whether existing science supported reclassifying cannabis so that it would no longer be considered a Schedule I controlled substance, which carries the most stringent restrictions knows. Other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Health officials recommended cannabis be reclassified as a Schedule III drug, putting it under substances such as Tylenol with codeine, ketamine and anabolic steroids. In April, the Drug Enforcement Administration agreed with federal health officials and Attorney General Merrick Garland officially recommended reclassifying the drug.

While reclassification does not federally legalize cannabis, it does pave the way for more research into the drug and could increase access to medical marijuana.

This year, marijuana surpassed alcohol use in daily use for the first time, with 17.7 million people reporting daily or near-daily marijuana use.

Liggins, who is being pardoned, said he applauds Moore’s forgiveness for marijuana crimes that would not be prosecuted under Maryland law today — even though it was not immediately clear how much it would change his life.

Shortly after he left prison in 2008, the Center for Urban Families helped find the job he still holds at an HVAC construction company in Baltimore. He said his employer relies on him as a foreman to lead teams on multimillion-dollar projects, but Liggins cannot work on the highest-paying contracts with the federal government because of his marijuana convictions. Despite his pardon, Liggins is unsure whether a related charge of making a false statement will still prevent him from working on those projects.

“A person can change,” he said. “A person should be able to pay off his debt to society and start over.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.