CannaBuzz: GOP delegates want law to make Maryland Attorney General advertise risks of cannabis use

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 15, 2019

If Maryland enacts any additional cannabis-law liberalization, then, under a bill introduced this General Assembly session by state Del. Rick Impallaria (R-7th District, Baltimore and Harford counties), the state’s attorney general would be required to undertake an advertising blitz to inform the public of the ongoing risks of using cannabis.

The risks described in House Bill 1307 are:

  • “Arrest for activity relating to marijuana by the Federal government, especially if the activity occurs on federal facilities, such as military bases, federal offices, federal parks, airports, and marine terminals.”
  • “Testing positive for marijuana use can result in job loss, especially if the job requires state licensing such as jobs in the medical and transportation industries.”
  •  “It will still be unlawful for banks and businesses to do business with someone who is receiving proceeds related to marijuana.”
  • “Filing a federal income tax return involving the receipt of proceeds related to marijuana can lead to prosecution for profiting from a federally illegal business, while failure to file an income tax return can also lead to prosecution.”
  • “There are health risks associated with smoking marijuana.”

If the bill becomes law, then the Attorney General, “at least 90 days before the implementation of any law that reduces the penalties for or legalizes the use of marijuana,” the bill states, “shall establish a system to notify the public” of the risks described in the bill. The notification system “shall include the creation of a website and public service announcements for radio, television, newspapers, and billboards.”

Impallaria is a controversial figure in Maryland politics – even fellow Republicans have called for him to resign – due to his long history of entanglements with the criminal-justice system. The bill is co-sponsored by state Del. Joseph Boteler (R-8th District, Baltimore County).

CannaPress: DOJ has a smart guy – who reads smart cannabis coverage – in charge of studying the cannabis industry’s nettlesome externalities

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 13, 2019

Last fall, Cannabis Wire ran a wake-up-call article by a close-to-the-ground writer with a big-picture sensibility, Melissa Matthewson, that exposed what Oregon’s legal-weed boom had wrought: a lax and overtaxed regulatory system allowing bad actors to saturate the market and poison the environment. Not long after, Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, who had read the article, became chair of the Justice Department’s Marijuana Working Group, and pronounced, “There is one thing everyone agrees on: a broad need for stronger regulation.”

Today, Cannabis Wire is running a lengthly interview of Williams by its co-founder, Alyson Martin – another birds-eye scribe with her feet firmly on the ground. If you’re involved or interested in – and especially if you’re overseeing – anything to do with legal weed, you’d help yourself by reading it, because these are smart people who are shaping the future.

Here’s a teaser:  “I think other states need to pay attention to those that have been in this experiment now for a few years and haven’t done a good job of regulating it. It’s a battle cry, as it’s been here in Oregon, of tax revenue and job creation. And my challenge to that continues to be: At what cost? What are all these collateral damage issues that are real to this state?”


CannaCrime: Big drop in Baltimore City pot-possession arrests, but not in the suburbs

By Van Smith

Baltimore, Feb. 8, 2019

The statewide phenomenon of police in Maryland disproportionately arresting African Americans on drug charges is profoundly clear in FSC’s analyses of Maryland State Police (MSP) crime data. (And it’s an ongoing problem in Baltimore City, starkly reported by Baltimore Fishbowl in December.) But in the Baltimore region, another disparity also leaps out from the data – while city police are only occasionally arresting people for cannabis possession now, suburban cops have hardly reined in their pot-arrest instincts.

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What’s more, Baltimore City and the surrounding suburban counties have switched places when it comes to the prevalence of cannabis-possession arrests since 2010. The city saw one such arrest for every 90 residents in 2010, while in the suburbs the figure was one in every 320 residents. In 2016, the surburban number had inched up to one in every 580 residents – but in the city, it had climbed precipitously to one pot-possession arrest for every 1,280 residents, a striking change.

The chart above shows the switch started to occur around 2013, when roughly the same number of pot-possession arrests occurred in the city versus the suburbs. After that, the city’s number of such arrests dropped to below 500 a year, while in the suburbs – the data are for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, and Howard counties – they remained in the high 3000s.

Pot-possession enforcement in Baltimore City has become almost rare, with a rapid drop in the proportion of all drugs arrests that were for pot possession starting in 2014 – and falling to below 10 perent thereafter. In the surrounding counties and statewide, though, enforcement intensity remains high – nearly 50 percent in the suburbs, which is high by the counties’ historical standards, even as statewide it dropped below 50 percent after consistently hovering around 60 percent since 2003.

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Here’s the usual caveat: arrest data are blunt, missing critical nuances that come only with knowing the particular facts and circumstances of each arrest. A pot-possession arrest, for instance, could be counted as such even though the arrestee was also being charged with assault and handgun violations. Or a pot-possession arrest could arise from only one charge, brought by a cop who wanted to take a problem citizen off the streets. The MSP data don’t tell such stories, but FSC still has found them to be a handy source for unearthing big-picture arrest trends.


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.