Although marijuana has been decriminalized in the state of Maryland, black people in Baltimore are still disproportionately arrested for cannabis offenses, according to an analysis of Baltimore Police Department data supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Baltimore Fishbowl worked with the Baltimore Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and data researcher Andy Friedman to look at misdemeanor cannabis possession charges in the years 2015, 2016 and 2017—the first three full years after decriminalization took place in October 2014.
After analyzing the data, breaking it down by zip code and then by race, they found that of the total 1,448 adults and 66 juveniles Baltimore police arrested for cannabis possession, 1,450 were black.
That means 96 percent of the people arrested for cannabis offenses over the course of three years after marijuana was decriminalized in the state of Maryland were black. Additionally, the Baltimore Police Department filed nearly 3,200 individual charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession during that same period, and most of those charged were in predominantly black parts of Baltimore.
The data also showed that possession arrests among adults and juveniles rose by 15 percent last year, going from 471 arrests in 2016 to 544 in 2017. Blacks made up 526 of the 544 people arrested.
Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, told the Fishbowl: “What the evidence that you have here shows is that no matter where you are in Baltimore, if you are black, you’re gonna be policed differently.”
Kumar’s sentiments were echoed by Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, who told the Fishbowl that the over-representation of black residents in weed possession arrests makes a clear case for why Maryland should change its cannabis laws.
“Recreational marijuana should be legal in the state of Maryland. I think that hopefully folks that will see this data—that is not surprising or shocking to me—will see that,” Scott said.
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley signed a bill into law that reduced the penalty for possession of fewer than 10 grams of cannabis to a simple citation and fine in April 2014. The law went into effect Oct. 1, 2014. Anyone caught with less than 10 grams would receive a citation rather than be arrested. Anything over 10 grams and up to 50 pounds was re-categorized as misdemeanor pot possession—punishable by up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine.
Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, told the Fishbowl he recalls advocates saying decriminalization “would help reduce racial bias in policing” but said he is not surprised it hasn’t delivered on that promise.
“It did not erase the racial disparity in police arrests,” Brown said. “This likely has a lot to do with where BPD patrols and which areas are hyper-policed.”
The Fishbowl reports that the number of cannabis citations in Baltimore climbed significantly each full year since decriminalization took effect—going from 44 in 2015 to 200 in 2016 to 429 in 2017.
Kumar told the Fishbowl that the findings from the arrest data point to “cumulative institutional racism” by Baltimore law enforcement. She added that it is not a surprise given the BPD’s history of discriminatory policing—something a 2016 Department Of Justice investigation into BPD highlighted, pointing out the disparate rates of arrests for drug crimes among black Baltimoreans, including cannabis.
It is also worth noting that the Fishbowl chose to use the word “cannabis” throughout their piece on the topic for a very specific reason:
The very word “marijuana” has racist origins. What began as Mexican slang for pot was popularized by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics and anti-drug propagandist, to vilify cannabis and stoke anti-Mexican sentiment in the country, and connect cannabis usage to people of color.
A growing group of cannabis advocates believes the word—which persists it seems, in part because the word sounds technical or scientific but is not—should not be used.