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Maryland is pardoning 175,000 marijuana convictions. It's part of a trend

 Gov. Wes Moore, center, holds an executive order authorizing pardons for at least 175,000 criminal convictions related to marijuana. Legalization, Moore said, “doesn't erase the fact that Black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Marylanders before legalization."
Screenshot by NPR
Gov. Wes Moore, center, holds an executive order authorizing pardons for at least 175,000 criminal convictions related to marijuana. Legalization, Moore said, “doesn't erase the fact that Black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Marylanders before legalization."

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore is absolving people convicted of more than 175,000 cannabis-related crimes, in what the governor called “the most sweeping state level pardon in any state in American history.”

The large-scale absolution comes a year after Maryland legalized recreational marijuana use. The lion’s share of the cases are misdemeanors: More than 150,000 convictions are for possession of cannabis, and more than 18,000 convictions are for possession with intent to use drug paraphernalia.

“We cannot celebrate the benefits of legalization if we do not address the consequences of criminalization,” Moore, a Democrat, said before signing an executive order issuing the pardons on Monday.

The governor’s office did not specify how many people would be affected by the pardons, noting that one person could have multiple eligible convictions. And while the initial tally focuses on cases in the state’s computerized system, people with records that predate the system could also seek to have even decades-old convictions absolved.

Pardons aim to ease burdens of past convictions

The pardons will absolve people of guilt, but they will not result in anyone getting out of jail: when Maryland legalized adult marijuana use and established a cannabis market last year, it halted the types of cases covered by the pardons. But, Moore said, his action looks to ease the cascading social and economic damage wrought by the war on drugs -- harm that advocates say has been found to profoundly and disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic communities.

Legalization, Moore said, “doesn't erase the fact that Black Marylanders were three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white Marylanders before legalization,” or undo the lingering effects of a drug conviction.

Nationwide, the ACLU said in 2020 that Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite similar usage rates. And while the number of such arrests dropped in many states, racial disparities persisted, the group said, citing figures as recent as 2018.

Moore signed the executive order in the Maryland State House, appearing alongside Attorney General Anthony G. Brown. The pair are the first Black holders of those offices in their state — and both men spoke about the need to make new history.

“If you look at the past, you see how policies have been intentionally deployed to hold back entire communities,” Moore said. “We're talking about tools that have led to the mass incarceration of Black men and boys.”

Past drug policies, he said, contributed to minorities having less access to jobs, housing and education opportunities -- and it also helps explain Maryland’s wide racial wealth gap, the governor added.

“To undo that kind of intentionality, we need to apply intentionality of our own,” Moore said.

States increasingly forgive low-level drug offenses

Maryland is one of 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, where adult recreational use of cannabis has been legalized. In nearly every case, momentum toward legalizing marijuana has also brought efforts to repair direct and collateral damage done by earlier drug laws.

Hundreds of thousands of marijuana-related criminal convictions have been forgiven, cleared, sealed or expunged altogether, according to NORML, the group that has long advocated to legalize marijuana nationally.
 

In some states, expungement is required by constitutional amendments legalizing cannabis. The action is more far-reaching than a pardon, as it removes a criminal conviction from the public record entirely.

The states take different methods to clear criminal records; those with automatic expungement processes, such as California and Illinois, have handled massive amounts of cases. But the time frame for that process can span years, depending on the date and nature of the offense.

Maryland’s action includes a process for people to ask for expungement. It comes three months after Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey announced sweeping marijuana pardons in her state, forgiving “all misdemeanor possession convictions in the state courts.”

“Those eligible number in the hundreds of thousands,” she added. A note to the governor’s office on Monday seeking an update on the number of affected cases was not immediately answered.

Change has also been happening at the federal level. The Biden administration recently proposed reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, moving it from Schedule I, where it shares a category with drugs like heroin and LSD, to Schedule III, which currently includes drugs like ketamine and anabolic steroids.

President Biden has also moved to pardon some marijuana-related federal charges and convictions -- and he has repeatedly urged states to do the same.

“Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It's time that we right these wrongs,” Biden said in 2022, when he announced pardons for thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana possession under either federal law or D.C. statute.

What’s next?

In Maryland, many people who are eligible to have their record changed do not have to take any action: the Maryland Judiciary located the cases using its digital records, and it will now begin updating those records, in a process that should take one or two weeks, according to Moore’s office.

Moore pledged last year that Maryland’s new cannabis policies would encourage social equity and restorative justice as it launched a state recreational market. While pardons are part of that plan, so are economic opportunities.

“In March, we conducted our first adult use cannabis licensing round, and all 174 licenses were awarded exclusively to social equity applicants,” Moore said on Monday. “And to be clear, that's the first time that that has happened in our nation's history.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a correspondent and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.