This week, the local prosecutor in Baltimore announced that her office would no longer prosecute cases of marijuana possession, regardless of the quantity involved or the defendant's criminal record. Moreover, her office will attempt to vacate nearly 5,000 previous marijuana convictions.
There is a surprising number of prosecutors in cities around the nation who have made the same call. In Minneapolis, for example, police are no longer engaging in undercover stings involving small amounts of marijuana for sale.
These decisions are in line with the increasing pressure to legalize the drug, either fully or for medical purposes. The decision to forego prosecution has, in many cases, been made for many of the same reasons people are pushing for legalization.
Prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses is costly and results in racial disparities
Although people of all races tend to use marijuana at the same rates, marijuana enforcement has resulted in serious racial disparities all around the country. In the case of Minneapolis, the decision to refrain from further marijuana stings was due in large part to allegations of racial profiling.
Late last spring, the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office complained to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey that the city's low-level marijuana stings almost exclusively targeted African-Americans. Of 47 people arrested in such stings, 46 were black. And, although the offenses typically involved between $10 and $20 of weed, all of the cases were charged as felonies.
Ultimately, the Hennepin County Attorney announced his office would no longer prosecute marijuana distribution cases produced by such stings.
There have been similar issues with racial profiling in other cities. In Baltimore, for example, between 2015 and 2017, more than 90 percent of marijuana citations were issued to African-Americans.
Prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn and Manhattan, at least, have taken low-level marijuana offenses off the prosecution table. In some cases, these prosecutors are also recommending that old convictions be cleared away.
Beyond the likely racial disparities in enforcement, there are other arguments for reducing marijuana prosecutions:
- Marijuana is not linked to violent crime, yet untold thousands have been left with marijuana-related criminal records that affect their opportunities for jobs, housing, education and other benefits.
- Marijuana enforcement is a waste of resources.
- Reducing marijuana enforcement makes communities safer by shifting resources toward more serious crimes.
- Stopping the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses can plant seeds of trust between police and the communities they serve.
When it comes to marijuana, the status quo isn't working. Arresting people for simple possession or low-level dealing has resulted in a class of citizens burdened with criminal records and serious collateral consequences even though their behavior is largely harmless. Do you think other cities in Minnesota need to reconsider their marijuana prosecutions?