CannaCrime: Maryland arrest data measure impact of cannabis decriminalization

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 8, 2019

Thirteen years of available Maryland State Police (MSP) data show dramatic changes in statewide drug-arrest trends as the era of cannabis decriminalization and medical pot approached, arrived in 2014, and thence became the new normal. The result: tens of thousands fewer arrests for drug crimes, including a dramatic drop in the number of drug arrests of African-American Marylanders. More resistant to change, though, is law enforcers’ drug-fighting focus on arrests for cannabis possession and on disproportionately arresting African-Americans for drug crimes generally.

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FSC compiled MSP data for analysis from the annual “Crime in Maryland” reports, which are available online from 2004 to 2016. The data reveal a dramatic reduction in drug-crime arrests – about 20,000 less in 2016 than the 2004-2010 average of 53,500. African-Americans, in particular, have been subjected to far few arrests – 17,500 in 2016, about half the 2004-2010 annual average of 34,500.

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The proportion of drug-crime arrests that were for cannabis possession, though, remains elevated in the era of decriminalization and medically prescribed weed in Maryland – and in fact, after dropping to 44 percent in 2015 from 52 percent in 2014, crept up to 48 percent in 2016. This is historically high; the 2004-2010 average was 41 percent. Thus, drug-crime policing in Maryland – while far less intense in terms of the raw numbers of arrests – remains wed to an increasingly anachronistic inclination to bust people for possessing pot.

The proportion of all drug-crime arrests in which the people charged were African-Americans has dropped moderately with the advent of decriminalization, but remains starkly disproportionate in a state where less than a third of the population is African American. Whereas the average proportion of African-American drug-crime arrests between 2004 and 2010 was 65 percent of all drug-crime arrests in Maryland, in 2015 the figure was 56 percent, and in 2014 it dropped to 53 percent.

It should be pointed out that drug-crime arrests, along with the subset of pot-possession arrests, are blunt data points, obscuring the factual nuances of each arrest’s circumstances. Some such charges could be just one a host brought against, say, a violent drug-dealer, or they could be the one and only charge against an otherwise law-abiding citizen who dissed the wrong cop. Blunt as they are, though, the “Crime in Maryland” data comprise a nice, long, consistent record.

The next “Crime in Maryland” report, covering 2017 data, should be out in the next month or two, at which point FSC will update these analyses.

CannaCrime: DEA’s cannabis-eradication program declines in Maryland and nationwide

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 1, 2019

In light of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office just-filed lawsuit against itself for prosecuting pot-possession cases, and our post this week indicating that the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office currently has no active marijuana case (save a recent decade-long fugitive), FSC was curious as to how federal law enforcers have been carrying out their cannabis-prohibition policies in Maryland. So FSC visited the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) cannabis-eradication page to catch up on its Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP).

“The DEA is aggressively striving to halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the United States,” the page explains, so DCE/SP allocates money to state and local law-enforcers for going after “Drug Trafficking Organizations” that are “involved in cannabis cultivation.” The federal funding “allows the enhancement of already aggressive eradication enforcement activities throughout the nation,” the page continues, including going after cultivators who are “growing outdoor cannabis under the cover of various states’ legal cannabis grows.”

“Despite cultivator efforts,” the page proclaims, “the DEA and the cooperating DCE/SP agencies continue to identify and eliminate cannabis grow sites throughout the United States.”

What’s not explained on the DCE/SP page is the dramatic drop in eradication in 2017 compared to the five-year average of 2011 to 2016. The links to the program’s annual data tables allow visitors to do their own math.

Nationwide, 2017 saw a 50-percent drop from the five-year average of weapons seized as a result of cannabis-eradication efforts; a 45-percent drop in indoor grow-site eradication; a 42-percent drop in outdoor grow-site eradication; a 42-percent drop in the dollar-value of assets seized; and a 22-percent drop in arrests.

Maryland’s cannabis-eradication numbers in 2017 compared to the five-year average from 2011 to 2016 show similar declines: a 63-percent drop in indoor grow-site eradication; a 50-percent drop in arrests; a 25-percent drop in assets seized; and a 28-percent drop in the total number of cultivated plants seized. The number of weapons seized in 2017 in Maryland in connection with cannabis-eradication efforts – 120 – was essentially the same as the five-year average of 124.

The number of pounds of bulk processed cannabis seized in 2017 in Maryland – the stuff ready for market – essentially equaled the five-year average of 86 pounds. Nationally, though, 2017’s 151,444 pounds of bulk processed cannabis seized is the highest in the 2011-2017 period, and is 24 percent more than the five-year average.

The national rise in bulk processed cannabis seized under the eradication program is understandable, given large-scale enforcement efforts such as a recent one in California, where tribal lands were being used by cartel growers, often against landowners’ wishes, to undertake industrial-sized, environmentally damaging production operations. Seized were 5,200 plants – and 500 pounds of bulk processed pot.

Cannabuzz: It’s “State v. State” in court brief to erase pot-possession convictions in Baltimore City

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 31, 2019

When a state criminal conviction causes unjust collateral damage to the convict, Maryland courts may issue a “writ of error coram nobis,” which clears the conviction. To do so, arguments must persuade the court that strict legal thresholds have been met. The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office (BSAO) this week made those arguments in Baltimore City Circuit Court, acting as the coram-nobis petitioner on behalf of thousands of pot-possession convicts whose cases date back to 2000.

The defendant in that civil proceeding? The same as the petitioner: the State of Maryland. In essence, the BSAO is suing itself over what it now believes was and is a terrible and harmful miscarriage of justice: the prosecution of a disproportionate number of African-Americans for possessing cannabis.

The petition, signed by BSAO chief counsel Antonio Gioia and chief deputy state’s attorney Michael Schatzow for the elected Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, describes pot prohibition’s “sordid history” that “lies in ethnic and racial bigotry,” and its codification as policy was “insanity” borne of xenophobia against “a large influx of Mexicans into America seeking to escape the violence of the Revolution of 1910.”

Some of the arriving Mexicans used “marihuana” recreationally, the petition continues, while some Americans at that time treated ailments with cannabis. A “campaign of government-sponsored fearmongering against the new immigrants” ensued, the petition recounts, resulting in most states outlawing pot possession by 1931. Thereafter, the blatantly racist federal anti-drug effort led by Harry Anslinger resulted in a de facto federal ban in 1937. The “final descent into legislative madness,” argue Gioia and Schatzow, occurred when cannabis was deemed a Schedule I controlled dangerous substance, joining the ranks with heroin and cocaine.

(In a footnote, Gioia and Schatzow add that “the complete irrationality of maintaining marijuana as a schedule I drug” – which “by definition is one that has ‘no accepted medical use’” – “is evident by the fact that there are currently in excess of 47,000 patients enrolled” in Maryland’s medical-marijuana program.)

The petition cites the U.S. Supreme Court in noting “the determination of Congress to turn the screw of the criminal machinery – detection, prosecution, and punishment – tighter and tighter,” while arguing, citing in particular the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress in recent years has lessened, that the machinery “has been applied disproportionately against the African-American community.”

While cannabis use is a color-blind phenomenon, the petition explains, enforcing pot prohibition has been racially lopsided. African-American Marylanders were nearly thrice as likely as whites to be arrested for pot possession between 2001 and 2010; in Baltimore, the figure was 5.6 times. The racially disproportionate effect of pot-possession enforcement plays out nationwide, the petition points out, and continues even as the wave of decriminalization and legalization has swept the country since 2010 – including in Baltimore City, where “racial disparities continue to exist after the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.”

This historical and ongoing race-based unequal treatment under the law, the petition asserts, meets the coram-nobis legal requirement that “challenging the criminal convictions are of a constitutional character.” As for showing collateral damage necessary for a writ, Gioia and Schatzow cite a litany of harms arising from the convictions – not only to reputation, but also “denial of eligibility for government benefits, significant social and psychological difficulties, public housing eligibility, use of criminal history by private landlords as a screening device, convictions operating as a de facto basis for job denial, and for those convicted individuals who are employed, much lower earnings than individuals without a conviction.”

Over time, the petition states “the collateral consequences have increased in both severity and unfairness, in light of the continued disparate enforcement, well-documented by research, and the subsequent legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in various quantities and circumstances.”

Calling cannabis possession a “patently innocuous” offense, the petition argues that the BSAO’s position is “tantamount to a confession of error” for prosecuting it over the years, especially now that “contemporary attitudes and public policy toward marijuana have changed dramatically.”

That the confession is coming from the office that prosecuted the offenses – that the petition is a “State v. State”-captioned matter – adds weight to the BSAO’s groundbreaking argument.

Cannabuzz: Cannabis-in-cars bill scheduled for hearing

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 31, 2019

Prince George’s County state Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-District 23A) and three fellow Democrats, with House Bill 350 before the Maryland General Assembly, have proposed penalizing those found with cannabis in their motor vehicles on Maryland highways the same as for open containers of alcohol: a $500 misdemeanor crime on their records, or prepayment of a $530 fine without taking the case to court. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill to a hearing scheduled for Feb. 19 at 1pm.

Cannabizness: Maryland bill would make pot subject to vehicular open-container law

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 30, 2019

That cannabis and cars don’t mix well is a foregone conclusion, but how best to penalize those caught using pot in vehicles is open for debate. In Maryland, one possible scenario – adding pot use to the state’s  existing law governing open booze containers in a motor vehicle’s passenger area – is back in play during the General Assembly’s 2019 session, having last year languished in the House Judiciary Committee and, in 2017, having passed the House and died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The lead sponsor this year, as it was last session, is Prince George’s County state Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-District 23A), and signing on as co-sponsors are Baltimore City state Del. Curt Anderson (D-43rd District), Howard County state Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-13th District), and Calvert and Prince George’s’ counties state Del. Michael Jackson (D-District 27B). House Bill 350 (HB 350), “Vehicle Laws – Smoking Marijuana in Vehicles – Prohibition,” currently awaits being scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, where no further action was taken last year after a hearing was held.

If HB 350 passes into law, someone who is caught using cannibis in the passenger area of a vehicle that is on a highway, whether it is moving or not, can be found guilty of a misdemeanor crime and be subject to a fine of up to $500, according to the fiscal note prepared for last year’s bill by the Department of Legislative Services. However, if that person chooses not to appear in court for a hearing over the violation, he or she can prepay a $530 fine. Either way, a point is added to a violator’s driving record, or three points if the violation is tied to an accident.

CannaCrime: Last Defendant in Decade-Old Maryland Federal Pot Case Arrested in Nevada

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 29, 2019

Ten years ago, Jeffrey Putney was almost 40 and about to start life on the lam, thanks to his alleged part in a massive coast-to-coast illegal pot conspiracy based in Baltimore. When the chips began to fall in March 2009, Putney, driving his Toyota 4Runner out of Fells Point, unwittingly led law enforcers to the location that blew the case open: 3522 Hickory Ave. in Hampden, where they found evidence of the many, many millions of dollars the enterprise generated and needed to launder. Putney was arrested on Baltimore City charges, released, and disappeared.


(Jeffrey Putney, in a photo taken before he fled federal charges unsealed in 2010, and provided courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force.)

On Jan. 11, Putney reappeared in a federal courtroom in Reno, Nevada, putting an end to his long run as the last remaining fugitive of the federal pot-dealing-and-money-laundering conspiracy led by Matt Nicka, who was picked up in Canada in 2013, not long after another top defendant, David D’Amico, was extradited from Colombia. Nicka, his wife Gretchen Peterson, and D’Amico pleaded guilty and were sentenced in 2016, and Nicka is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.

The case involved 16 defendants in all, and all pleaded guilty except for two: pilot Keegan Leahy and Baltimore nightclub impressario Daniel McIntosh, whom jurors found guilty of some, but not all, of the charges against them. Leahy’s prison term ended in 2015, and McIntosh is scheduled for release in July 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons records, while another defendant, Anthony Marcantoni is set to be freed a month later. Many of the defendants have already served their sentences and moved on with their lives.

Putney is accused of helping the Nicka conspiracy move quantities of cannabis around, which is exactly what he allegedly was doing when he drove to the Hampden house and dropped off three boxes he’d obtained at Aliceanna and Bond streets in Fells Point from Adam Constantinides, another co-defendant, who was released from his prison stint in 2016. Constantinides, meanwhile, had picked up the boxes at a storage facility on Wilkens Ave. to deliver them to Putney.

“During the surveillance,” investigative documents filed in the case state, “Constantinides and Putney constantly used counter-surveillance techniques, including driving down dead-end streets, making frequent U-turns, and cutting through parking lots.” Testimony at the Leahy-McIntosh trial also described Putney allegedly involved in unloading pot stashed in golf bags from an airplane at Martin Airport in Baltimore County.

After Putney was observed dropping the boxes at the Hickory Ave. house and was arrested, agents got a warrant to search the property and found almost 100 pounds of pot, about 30 cell phones, four money-counters, two scales, $20,000 in cash, money wrappers, drug tally sheets reflecting transactions involving more than $1.5 million, documents about an aircraft purchase, and paperwork about prices and amounts of drugs and the names of customers and suppliers. It was the mother lode that helped break the case, and Putney led them right to it.

FSC discovered the fact of Putney’s recent arrest by chance, while at the Baltimore federal courthouse yesterday searching PACER, the federal court-records database, to see if federal prosecutors in Maryland had any open pot-conspiracy cases on the dockets. It appears they do not, and FSC has asked the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office to confirm that fact and provide any available details about the circumstances of Putney’s arrest. FSC will update when and if new information comes to light.




Cannapress: Doyle Murphy chronicles illegal-weed deal that unhinged St. Louis-based tanning-salon mogul, to brutal effect

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Jan. 19, 2019

While my chainsawdismemberment pot-dealing stories of a few years back may have had more horrific facts, the Riverfront TimesDoyle Murphy‘s longform deconstruction of tanning-salon tycoon Todd Beckman’s descent into torturous violence over an illegal-weed deal gone awry spares no details. The St. Louis reporter unspools a timeline of repercussions started by the theft of a safe containing $15,000 and 24 pounds of weed, as the thief suffers a series of beatings and tasings administered by a cast of dangerously flawed characters led by Beckman, who quickly undid his towering legit-biz empire by exacting the sadistic tribute. With pot laws changing in state after state, creating a fast-growing medical-cannibis industry, this serves as another reminder that the illegal stuff moves in treacherous corners of society.