CannaCrime: The Eastern Shore is Maryland’s bastion of anti-pot policing

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 30, 2019

Cannabis-carrying civilians on Maryland’s Eastern Shore bear a far greater risk of arrest for possession than those in the rest of the state, according to Free State Cannablawg’s analysis of arrest data from 2010 through 2017 compiled by Maryland State Police.

I crunched two sets of data to measure the relative “pot-friendliness” of Maryland’s jurisdictions – to show, in other words, where police are more or less apt to arrest people for possession.

First, using U.S. Census population estimates, I established the annual number of arrests for weed possession per 100,000 residents in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. This per-capita measure gives a sense of what happens on the streets, of the relative weight or density of possession arrests, in each jurisdiction. Here’s the resulting chart, with a dividing line for the state’s 2014 decriminalization for possessing small amounts:

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The possession-arrest disparity between the Shore and the rest of Maryland is already apparent in 2010, and by 2014 it widens to more than a two-to-one ratio. After decriminalization, an immediate drop in per-capita arrests is pronounced – but on the Shore, arrests quickly rebound so that by 2017 the Shore has more than 800 possession arrests per 100,000 residents compared to about 250 in the rest of the state.

Then I determined the annual percentages of all drug arrests that were for pot possession in each jurisdiction. This gives an indication of how intensely each local government’s drug-enforcement effort focuses on people carrying weed. The rise and fall of these percentages, as one would expect, track roughly the pattern for per-capita pot-possession arrests. Here’s the chart:

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Drug enforcement on the Eastern Shore, as the chart shows, has placed far greater emphasis on pot-possession arrests than the rest of Maryland has for the entire period. Thus, it appears that the Shore’s dramatic post-decriminalization possession-arrest jump has been administered without much change in anti-drug policing priorities.

However, all parts of the shore are not equally risky. In 2017, all of the counties of the Upper Shore – Caroline, Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, and Talbot – have at or less the Shore-wide per-capita pot-possession arrest number of 805 per 100,000 residents. On the Lower Shore, though, Dorchester County boasts 1,551 such arrests per 100,000 residents, while Worcester County, where Ocean City is situated, in 2017 reached a whopping 1,842 pot-possession arrests per 100,000 residents.

What interesting about Dorchester and Worcester counties is where they were in 2010. At that time, Dorchester County, whose largest city is Cambridge, had a mere 379 pot-possession arrests per 100,000 residents, so the police really ratcheted up pot enforcement in the post-decriminalization era. In Worcester County, on the other hand, there were 2,218 such arrests per 100,000 residents, so the still-high numbers for 2017 actually represent a significant increase.

The bottom line: if you’re going to possess cannabis in Maryland and are averse to risking arrest for doing so, perhaps it’s best to stay on the Baltimore side of the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River.

CannaCrime: Latest Maryland pot-possession arrest data show uptick, stark regional differences

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 28, 2019

The intended effects of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of cannabis – the civilian benefit of fewer damning arrest records, especially for African-Americans who have suffered arrests disproportionately, and the police bonus of freeing up resources to pursue graver crimes – have been evident in Maryland since the measure became law in 2014. But the latest year for which data are available, 2017, shows a continuing creep upward in the prevalence of cannabis-possession arrests statewide, with stark regional differences, and an uptick in the percentage of African-American drug arrests.

Free State Cannablawg crunched the Maryland State Police numbers released this month, along with annual crime and population data going back to 2010, to find that per-capita pot-possession arrests, while still lower than before decriminalization, have gone up each year between 2015 and 2017. So have the percentages of all drug arrests that are for cannabis possession, a measure of drug-policing prioritization that essentially has returned to pre-decriminalization levels. Drug arrests of African-Americans, after dropping from 60 percent of all drug arrests in 2014 to 53 percent in 2016, in 2017 reversed course to 54 percent.

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In some areas of the state, meanwhile, decriminalization has resulted in either a higher prevalence of pot-possession arrests, a greater level of police resources devoted to such arrests, or both. The Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland, in particular, show a marked rise in per-capita pot-possession arrests in the aftermath of decriminalization. Only the Baltimore region has demonstrated a continued drop in per-capita pot-possession arrests since decriminalization, with Western Maryland exhibiting an apparent plateau at a lower level.

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Both the Baltimore region and Western Maryland also have shown a continued dampening of drug policing devoted to cannabis possession – as has the Lower Eastern Shore, where the slight drop is relative to a very high level of pot-policing. In the suburban Washington region, meanwhile, decriminalization barely made a dent in the drive toward higher percentages of drug arrests that were for pot-possession.

The trends apparent in the pot-arrest data are a function of discretion exercised by police. Clearly, police forces in some regions of Maryland have taken the decriminalization memo to heart, while others have opted ratchet up their dedication to arresting people for possessing cannabis. The result is a state where, despite decriminalization, police increasingly are returning to their previously normal habit of arresting people who are found with some weed.

FreeStateCannablawg doesn’t have data to show reasons why this is happening, but would like to know whether, in a time when increasing numbers of Marylanders have access to legally prescribed medical cannabis, police are encountering more people who are more often carrying apparently illegal amounts over 10 grams, and thus are arresting them.

In the absence of such data, FreeStateCannablawg would accept anecdotes and suggested explanations. Should anyone be aware of medical-cannabis patients being arrested for illegal pot-possession, feel free to send relevant information to van@freestatecannablawg.com – and, please, if you have any, offer ideas for possible other reasons for the data trends in the comments section.

 

CannaCrime: Latest Baltimore crime data show dramatic decline in cannabis-possession arrests as decriminalization takes hold

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 22, 2109

While racial disparities continue to muddy the waters of pot-prohibition discussions, one thing jumps out when crunching newly available Maryland State Police crime data: Baltimore City’s law-enforcement discretion in the age of decriminalization had led to a free fall in the number of people getting jacked up for possessing cannabis. As the city’s numbers have dropped, so too have the region’s: from nearly 500 pot-possession arrests per 100,000 residents in 2010, to below 150 per 100,000 residents in 2017.

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It took me some time to create this population-corrected analysis, but it’s borne fruit. Also interesting to note are trends in specific counties. In Harford, for instance, per-capita pot-possession arrests jumped significantly in 2016 and 2017 compared to the six years prior – decriminalization since 2014 seems to have had the opposite practical affect there than the policymakers intended – and in Anne Arundel the downward shift is decidedly muted. Baltimore County, meanwhile, clearly has taken the decrim memo to heart by bringing its per capita possession-arrest numbers in 2017 down to Baltimore City’s sub-basement levels.

Remembering when Maryland joined the decriminalization movement

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 18, 2019

Scrolling through the archives, I found this, my piece summing up 2014’s momentous cannabis-law changes:

High Times: The winners and losers in Maryland’s pot debate in 2014

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 1, 2014

Come Oct. 1, people in Maryland caught with less than 10 grams of pot or less will no longer face criminal penalties, thanks to the April 7 passage of a marijuana-decriminalization bill in the Maryland General Assembly, which Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed on April 14.

In a statement about the measure’s passage, O’Malley used an arcane legal term—desuetude, which refers to the process of a law lapsing or becoming unenforceable by lack of will to prosecute it—to sum up his feelings on the matter. The bill’s ultimate success in the legislature, he said, is “an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health.”

The reality in recent years, O’Malley said, is that “as a matter of judicial economy and prosecutorial discretion, few if any defendants go to prison for a first or even a second offense of marijuana possession in Maryland,” adding that “desuetude is often a precursor of reform.”

But O’Malley’s statement misses the point for the thousands of people each year who have been charged or convicted as criminals in Maryland for having small amounts of marijuana. The nearly 20,000 small-amount pot violations entered into Maryland court records in fiscal year 2013—almost 3,100 of which resulted in criminal fines or time behind bars for those charged, according to figures provided by Maryland courts to the legislature during this year’s debate—point to the potentially dramatic impact decriminalization can have on many Marylanders’ lives.

Data on pot arrests in Baltimore City are glumly relevant on this score. In all of 2013, Baltimore City police conducted 3,620 arrests for possessing less than 10 grams of weed. The average age of those arrested was 28 years old, and 92 percent were African-American. In the first three months of 2014, there were another 699 arrests; 90 percent of those arrested were African-American and, again, the average age was 28. Thus, every month, hundreds of young African-Americans in Baltimore City are locked up for having a little bit of weed in their pockets, arrests that will show up in their criminal records all their lives. Starting in October, that will come to an end.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who opposed the decriminalization bill, now says she finds solace in the measure’s potential to reduce arrests. “The racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession is [sic] appalling,” Rawlings-Blake says in a statement to City Paper. “Now that decriminalization is the law, my administration will fully support implementation,” she adds, “and I hope that it leads to a decrease in arrests for African Americans.”

Obviously, then, the big winners in this picture are the Free State’s many dope smokers, since an avenue to avoid criminal charges is opening up. Navigating that avenue, though, may prove more complicated than it first appears, so risk-averse tokers should proceed with caution.

Consider, for instance, where the 10-gram threshold falls in the typical small-time pot-buying scenario. Your friendly neighborhood dealer typically sells in fractions-of-an-ounce increments. If you’re caught holding an eighth-ounce bag, which weighs about 3.5 grams, or a quarter-ounce bag, you’re just facing a civil fine. If you’re a first-time offender who is 21 or older, you’ll be on the hook for $100, and second and third offenses will up the ante to $250 and $500, respectively, while drug treatment may be ordered if you’re under 21 or a third-timer. But if you buy a half-ounce bag, which weighs more than the 10-gram threshold, and a cop catches you with it, you’re looking at the same old misdemeanor criminal charge, carrying maximum penalties of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Consumer-oriented dealers, then, might consider selling in 9.5-gram intervals, just to keep their customers on the safe side of the law. There could even be a new term for this, something like a “fine bag,” meaning it’s pretty much fine to carry it around with you, or that you just get a fine.

But there’s another wrinkle to consider: Devices used to smoke pot—even rolling papers, if they’re used to roll joints—are still outlawed, and those caught with them catch a criminal charge carrying a maximum $500 fine but no jail time for first-time offenders. Perhaps, then, you could chuck your bong, bowl, or vaporizer, and head to the kitchen to cook small batches of pot cookies or brownies instead (see “Getting Baked,” page 41), so as not to bear the risk of carrying any paraphernalia. But this approach is fraught too: If a cop catches you with the cookies, and detects they have THC in them, can’t you be charged based on the weight of the cookies? Probably. So even a single cookie or brownie—unless it is under 10 grams, which would be a very, very small confection—could land you in lockup.

Thus, despite decriminalization, it will continue to be hard to use pot in Maryland without risking criminal charges. But tokers are still the big winners, since far fewer of them are likely to get arrested or otherwise end up with criminal records in the future.

Besides dope smokers, the other decriminalization winners are the players in the state’s criminal justice system, which will see resources freed up to manage more pressing concerns. As the fiscal analysis of the bill puts it, “workloads for local law enforcement agencies may decrease to the extent that the citation process involves less administrative time than an arrest.” By extension, the same holds true for prosecutors and judges, who won’t have to adjudicate such cases, while decriminalization “significantly decreases caseloads” for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD), the analysis explains, allowing “resources spent on these cases” to be “shifted to other OPD cases and duties.” Local jails, meanwhile, won’t be detaining small-time pot possessors, saving $60 to $160 per day for each such inmate not serving time, the analysis notes.

Also in the winner category is the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which will become the recipient of the revenue derived from pot fines in order to underwrite drug-treatment and education programs. With a new money spigot, though, can come new headaches. As the analysis states: “[I]t is unclear what would happen to any unexpended funds at the end of a fiscal year.”

The reform, similar to those in place in at least 15 other states, passed in dramatic fashion in the final days of the Maryland General Assembly’s session and was an impressive affront to the remarkable institutional deference usually afforded to one powerful man: the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman for more than 20 years, Prince George’s and Calvert counties state Del. Joseph Vallario (D), a 77-year-old criminal-defense attorney and a staunch opponent of decriminalizing pot.

As the end of the session neared, Vallario’s committee amended the bill to relegate the prospect of decriminalization to two years of study by a task force. A revolt ensued, spearheaded by members of the Legislative Black Caucus. They stressed the thousands of new criminal cases that would be filed against Maryland citizens during two years of task-force navel-gazing, a disproportionate number of which would name African-Americans as defendants. Amazingly, the revolt succeeded.

In a fit of rhetorical cynicism, one could make the case that Vallario’s opposition to decriminalization is subliminal allegiance to the revenues he and his colleagues at the bar derive from those charged in small-time pot cases. A review of the state’s online court records reveals that in the past three years, Vallario has had at least 36 such defendants—a fraction of his overall client base, but nothing to sneeze at, nonetheless, especially since their cases, which involved no other more serious charges such as pot-dealing or weapons, were likely pretty easy to resolve. That argument, though, is perhaps unfair—as a group, criminal-defense attorneys have been vocal supporters of decriminalization; there are plenty of other, more serious crimes that generate far greater fees.

So, if not criminal-defense attorneys, who loses? State Sen. Lisa Gladden (D-Baltimore City) has an interesting perspective on this question. She says that “ultimately, black kids are the ones who are going to be hurt” by decriminalization, because “police officers are going to shake them down, lock them up, and hold them for 10 hours in lockup before saying, ‘Oh, it’s not enough to charge you.’ I don’t have any faith in the State’s Attorney’s Office or the police department to make good decisions when they’re faced with a kid with some marijuana in his pocket.”

Gladden voted against the decriminalization bill when it was before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for which she serves as a vice chair, and either didn’t vote or voted against it in two Senate floor votes. Why? “I’m tired of taking half-steps. We’re not doing this right. I would rather make it legal and call it a day. We need to legalize it so we can get the cops out of the game completely.”

And that, of course, is the end game here. O’Malley said desuetude stirs the winds of reform. Perhaps, upon tasting the fruits of decriminalization, lawmakers will develop an appetite for legalization, with its tempting potential for tax revenue and free-falling costs for enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration. As Gladden points out, “it’s a money-maker.” At that point, perhaps, there will be no losers—except maybe your friendly neighborhood drug dealers.

CannaBuzz: Maryland driving-and-toking bill gets vigorous nod from prosecutors

By Van Smith

Baltimore, March 1, 2019

“How could it be that it’s okay to have a bong in your car, and smoking it, but you’re not able to have an open container of alcohol?” Steve Kroll, speaking on behalf of the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association (MSAA), on Feb. 26 asked of the Maryland senators he hopes will vote to close a driving-with-weed loophole that has become an incongruence in the age of decriminalization.

In the real world, if police observed someone doing bong hits in a car, it’d be a good bet that charges would result. But the prosecutor’s point remains: “Our goal is … safe driving,” Kroll explained to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (JPC), adding, “this is a driving bill more than it is a marijuana bill.”

It would accomplish that by, in essence, adding cannabis to the existing open-container law that currently pertains only to alcohol, as FSC reported in prior coverage. Someone caught using cannibis in the passenger area of a vehicle, moving or not on a highway, would be subject to a $500 misdemeanor crime and a point on their driving record, or three points should the violation involve an accident, if Senate Bill 418 becomes law.

“All this does is put marijuana on the same footing as Bud Light in terms of having it in your car,” Senator sponsor Robert Cassilly (R-District 34) of Harford County told his colleagues during his testimony.

“It’s important,” Cassilly added, “as marijuana use becomes more prevalent and because we’ve decriminalized the use of marijuana, that we send the appropriate message.” In this case, he continued, the message is directed “to particularly the young drivers: that marijuana is not an appropriate substitute for the Budweiser that you’d like to drink in your car, that you can’t just simply drop off one kind of bud for another.”

JPC vice chair William Smith Jr. (D-District 20, Montgomery County) asked about how the bill would address “edibles,” the broad range of cannabis products that produce no second-hand smoke because they are eaten, not combusted.

“Edibles would not apply to passengers, only to drivers” explained MSAA’s David Daggett, adding that “primarily we’re concerned with the passenger smoking and the driver smoking” because cannabis smoke can affect others in a vehicle’s passenger area.

If opposition to the bill exists, no one rose to voice it during the Feb. 26 hearing. Testimony on its Democrat-sponsored companion bill, House Bill 350, was taken by the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 19.

 

CannaPress: Ericson finds how reality can muck up Baltimore prosecutors’ effort to cure pot prohibition’s errors

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 21, 2019

Courthouse News Service‘s Edward Ericson Jr. has discovered what wasn’t immediately apparent about the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office’s move, announced with fanfare in January, to strike thousands of past pot-possession convictions the office previously had fought for: that the effort will be complicated, thanks to the realities of Baltimore crime.

Ericson looked in detail at 10 percent of the 1,050 Circuit Court cases the Baltimore prosecutors aim to reverse, and found nearly half had “a least one conviction for a violent crime either prior or subsequent to pleading guilty to pot possession.”

That many pot-possession defendants also faced other charges is no surprise: when cops make arrests for guns or assault or drug-dealing, they’ll often throw into the mix  whatever charges the evidence lets them, such as, say, having a little weed in addition to crack and a gun. Such facts add particularized nuances to the process of reversing each individual pot-possession conviction, as lawyers and judges will need to hash out how the charge fits into the larger picture, with possible repercussions at sentencing or for probation violations.

Full disclosure: Ericson is a former longtime colleague of mine.

CannaCrime: Two Pot Defendants in Maryland Federal Court, Two Very Different Cases

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 21, 2019

While Free State Cannablawg’s attempts to ennumerate pending cannabis-crime cases in Maryland’s U.S. District Court remain hopeful (FSC has asked the U.S Attorney’s Office how many there are, so far without response), scouring the public terminals at the Garmatz courthouse has turned up two: one’s an apple, the other an orange.

The apple would be the case of a man who agreed to 12 months’ probation for possessing weed at the Naval Station Norfolk last August, and his supervision was transferred to federal court in his home state of Maryland. If the charge and sentence seem out of step in this day and age of pot liberalization, well, the court record reflects a defendant, Ayodei Ogunlade, who probably agrees.

When Ogunlade tested positive for cannabis, he “admitted to smoking the drug on … the day of sentencing,” U.S. probation officer Christine Hayfron-Benjamin wrote in her report of Ogunlade’s transgressions. By way of explanation, he said “he knew he would be appearing before the court, but he found marijuana in the house before leaving and ‘didn’t want to waste it.'”

Once under Maryland supervision, and despite not receiving required court permission to do so, Ogunlade promptly left the country for a week-long vacation in Cancun, Mexico – and then repeatedly lied to his probation officer about it, denying that he’d gone. Hayfron-Benjamin’s report reflects how he then proceeded to invent a whole suite of changing facts regarding the hospitalization and death of his father-in-law, and his wife’s mourning of it, so as to make excuses for taking the forbidden Cancun vacation.

“This officer,” Hayfron-Benjamin wrote, “encouraged Mr. Ogunlade to be honest and questioned why he refused to be truthful. He responded that he knew that this officer would uncover the truth but couldn’t explain why he continued to be dishonest.”

From FSC’s reading of these facts, Ogunlade seems not to have taken his crime seriously, and so is not adapting well to being punished for it. Not so the second case, the orange to Ogunlade’s apple: Jeffrey Putney.

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(Jeffrey Putney, in a photo from prior to his 2010 indictment, courtesy of the U.S. Marshal Service.)

Putney took his pot charges very, very seriously: he went on the run, and remained in hiding for nearly a decade. He’s the last defendant to be adjudicated in a massive Baltimore-based pot and money-laundering conspiracy that was dismantled by federal law enforcers starting in 2010 after operating as a globe-trotting enterprise throughout the 2000s.

While Ogunlade is facing the possibility to being directed to “participate in a cognitive-behavioral program to address his poor decision-making,” according to Hayfron-Benjamin’s report, Putney is likely headed to a long stint in federal prison, possibly approaching the 10-plus years some of his co-defendants are serving.

In the meantime, Putney is being held in detention pending upcoming proceedings in his case, with the latest being the Feb. 15 entry on his docket, described as a “Sealed Document” with an attached exhibit.

FSC looks forward to updating the progress of these vastly different cases, whose sole commonality is cannabis.